8: The Balance

Unlike the fictional town of Ticlaw in Honky Tonk Freeway, Mount Dora is getting its freeway exit, and growth is coming to town. If the Innovation District is successfully pulled off, there will be higher-paying jobs in the economy, a better tax base for city services, higher real estate values and better education opportunities. If the project falters and single-family development takes off instead, the wildfire of growth may rapidly extinguish what for so many treasure about Mount Dora.

Again and again, people we talked with for this article stressed the importance of careful planning, of sticking to the plan, remaining patient, knowing that the city only has one good shot at pulling off the Innovation District successfully.

“The last 4–5 councils have been steadfast,” says assistant city manager and planning and zoning manager Mark Reggentin. “It could turn in one year if council takes a different approach and supports single family or apartment development. We’ll become another bedroom community — a nice one, maybe, but unsustainable.”

“Mount Dora did not get its statewide and national reputation for quality by making knee-jerk decisions,” said Cal Rolfson, Second District council rep. “What we have here is because we carefully thought it through. The protections that were crafted are important.”

Now the city enters the noisiest, most expensive — and diciest — part of the work. Shiny deals are everywhere on the horizon. Some are worth serious consideration, others may be Trojan Horses. Honky Tonk Freeway, in which downtown Mount Dora was painted pink to make a buck, was a lousy movie. But, a message from it endures: Growth is good, but sometimes you have to be careful what you pray (connive) for. Florida has for too long known that the good is the enemy of the best.

Unfortunately, there’s no going back. And the peril ahead is twofold: If Mount Dora focuses too much on maintaining its small-town charm, it will miss its one good chance to secure a far wider and stronger grip on its economic future (for all of north Lake County); but, if the city becomes too absorbed with the furious growth at its outer edges, the inner core will surely struggle to avoid becoming an anomaly from the past century.

In many ways, what the city faces is what the entire culture is now facing, as digital technology is changing things at warp-speed, and leaving established institutions of commerce, faith and family struggling to stay relevant. Back in the mid-1970s, futurist Alvin Toffler in his book The Third Wave proposed a simple formula for thriving in such a world. On one side of your personality, he said, stay as wide open to change as you can; while on the other side, stay faithful to your deepest, most traditional roots. It also suggests that there is a way the city can maintain its balance: the faster you grow, the deeper you must root.

HIstoric Tremain Street trestle.

Mayor Hoeschst looks at it this way. “I like to think of the challenge like the balance pans used in the image of the scales of justice. It’s crucial to understand that what happens downtown, depends on what happens in the area we hope will develop into the Innovation District. And to make the Innovation District more attractive to prospective businesses and the residents it will attract, we have to maintain focus on making our downtown the best it can be.”

The metaphor works just as well when considering the balancing act between government and its citizens. The work of city leaders is crucial, but their power to act depends upon the support (and challenge) of citizens. It’s our job to pay attention. The city’s work cannot succeed in a vacuum of suburban indifference.

So how can the community keep involved? Mayor Hoechst spoke of a vital need to include citizens.

So how can the community keep involved? Mayor Hoechst spoke of a vital need to include citizens. “The Innovation District is a huge project. There will need to be workshops, formal meetings. Maybe we should start having regular, maybe, quarterly updates to council on how things are proceeding. Maybe it should become a council agenda item. We can use the city website as another place to provide this information.

Residents of South Lake County are partially to blame for the abdications of smart policy that led to the region’s dismal, hyper-developed prospects; as Lauren Ritchie has pointed out, many of its new populations arrived from Orlando, where bloated suburban development is the rule. Mount Dora residents have a clear role and say in which of its two futures will come to pass.

The Wolf Branch Innovation District plan stretches all the way out to 2040, and that’s a horizon clouded with a lot of if’s. Global warming is making the state prone to violent weather and the growing threat of excessive heat and rising seas. Periods of drought could completely overwhelm existing water supplies. Climate change advocates say that unless the world weans itself off fossil fuel consumption within 20 years, the rapid melt of the West Antarctic plate could subsume all of Florida within a hundred years. What happens when road culture (imagined ridiculously in Honky Tonk Freeway) dries up for lack of gas? (Those who say that they’re old enough not to have to worry about such things are conspiring with the vicious blows to fall upon their children and grandchildren’s day.)

In “Honky Tonk Freeway,” the peril of attracting growth without a good plan is clear.

At recent candidates forums, challengers Mark Slaby, Laurie Tillet, and Nick Girone (challengers for the At-large, First District council and mayor seat) voiced support for the Wolf Branch Innovation District plan and the need to carefully manage its growth. It is heartening to know there’s no outright opposition to the Innovation District plan, but the devil is surely waiting in all the details council and city and county leaders have to iron out.

Given the magnitude of what’s just ahead, citizens need to consider their choices carefully on November 3, not only for their council representatives but also on charter revisions. Changes might provide greater consistency and effectiveness to the council’s work through an extension of terms. Or, the elimination of at-large seats could provide individual districts with a stronger voice.

The Wolf Branch Innovation District is a prime example of why regional and state elections matter, too. Our Lake County commission has to remain equally strong and dedicated to the project, state representatives need to be advocates and our Governor must remain accountable. If they aren’t, then voters need to remember that as well next year

How Mount Dora changes over the next decade will deeply affect life across all of Lake County. Are we destined to become a mega-suburb of retirees and commuters whose heavy taxes still can’t provide enough for city services, or will we have a decent economic leg to finally stand on our own?

That is the crossroads now facing the city, and which of those two courses comes to pass will have a dramatic effect upon life for all of us, families, friends and neighbors alike.

— David Cohea (david@gmail.com)

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