Downtown Mount Dora after the recent 3-year construction and streetscaping project.

7: Protecting The Village

When the Wekiva Parkway finally completes in 2020, the SR-429 toll road that travels from Disney up through northwest Orlando will finally connect to SR-417, the toll road that connects to I-4, Sanford, Longwood, the University of Florida, Highway 50 and down to Orlando International Airport. That will provide great access for Mount Dora citizens to all of Orlando.

It will also provide all Orlando with great access to Mount Dora, as well as finally creating a direct route into North Lake County.

A boon for sure, but can the city’s traditional small-town charm be preserved in the face of so much new traffic and development?

Many of the officials we spoke with called it “protecting the village,” and that task has been front and center of the city’s work for at least the past ten years, even as the massive plans for growth grow toward actuality.

Much effort has been spent blunting the traffic blow. “Originally, the plan was for an exchange off 46 right onto 441,” said First District council member Ryan Donovan in another interview. “That would have been a traffic nightmare. Working with county transportation officials, we took another look at the plan and got the Florida Department of Transportation to empty out onto SR-46 a ways back of US-441, (near Round Lake Road). That going to make a big difference on traffic coming into (here).”

Also, at the point where 46 will empty onto 441 in the new configuration, the flow on First Avenue will be improved with an accentuated turnoff onto US-441, allowing commuter traffic to flow smoothly north from the city. Traffic enhancements planned on Round Lake will also take some of the north-bound flow directly upward from the interchange.

For the increased traffic heading into the city proper, there’s work still to do. Third District councilman Ed Rowlett keeps a close eye on that. “I don’t want our little downtown district to get changed by roads,” he says. “We have to preserve our heritage here. We have to grow smart and remember that priorities downtown are important.” He noted surfacing issues at the Donnelly-Fifth Avenue intersection and from Tremain down to to Lake Dora. “Fixing potholes isn’t just going to do it,” he said. “We need improvements.”

Keeping Mount Dora’s brand front and center was shown this way in the 2011 Envision Plan.

Several new faces to the local political scene also weighed in. Marc Crail, council-elect representative for District 4: “Much of (Mount Dora’s) charm is our historic downtown area and our beautiful lakefront. Most of our future residential growth will occur well away from downtown and the Innovation District is several miles away, outside of the current city limits. I think that proper safeguards can help balance healthy new growth and equally desirable small-town charm. Preserving that balance is my top priority.”

Mark Slaby, who is running for the at-large-council seat against Michael Tedder, responded this way: “I listen to my daughter play violin, hundreds of hours each year on various benches in our historic downtown. I hear visitors and residents alike talk about our charming city so I can think of no one as inspired to preserve that character. I have and will continue to work passionately to protect and enhance our treescape in all areas of Mount Dora. I will also work to make sure that the growth that comes because of the Wekiva Parkway stays in the proper areas by continuing to do my homework and to be a tenacious advocate for my hometown and all of its historic areas.”

Mayor Hoechst addressed the question from both sides of the challenge. “We’ve spent $10 million upgrading infrastructure downtown and making the streetscape more attractive and inviting. The current seated council is not planning on any more work downtown for a couple of years so businesses can focus on making themselves as strong as they can be. The city needs to help store owners take pride in their downtown.

“New businesses are moving in. We’re seeing some great new additions to our offering of restaurants. We want to provide visitors to downtown with a balance — boutiques, specialty shops, bistros and fine dining establishments.

“Importantly, we want the downtown to become a draw for residents just as much as it is for visitors. If the Innovation District develops and more people move to Mount Dora to live and work here, there will be more disposable income to spend downtown. Where people might have driven down to Disney for great food, downtown Mount Dora, if it grows the right way, will provide all that.”

Rob English is president of the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce. “As the Innovation District becomes a reality, commercial development will follow on highway 441 and the remaining areas around downtown. As a result of this tremendous growth, our downtown merchants will certainly benefit financially as our entire economic footprint increases. We must keep in mind that our goal is to look more like the Heathrow area. We do not want to make the same mistakes that South Lake County and Lake Mary seem to have made.”

In the end, it may be that because Mount Dora has a village to protect, the villagers will make sure it will be.

Next: Balancing big growth outside a small town is a job for city and citizens.

David Cohea, Writer (david@gmail.com)

Originally published at www.mountdoracitizen.com on October 24, 2015.

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