Present intersection of SR-46 and Round Lake Road, near proposed Wolf Branch Innovation District.

2: A Plan Envisioned and Crafted

Earlier in the decade, the city was coming out of tough recession, the result of the collapse of real estate prices following a regional boom in housing development. The recession cut deeply into traditional city revenues from real estate property assessments and impact fees, and had led to additional commercial vacancies downtown.

As a result, the city wasn’t able to complete desired capital projects and maintain historical levels of service, causing many to worry that the city was falling behind its neighbors in Lake County, who seemed to be drawing both residents and jobs.

There was added concern that while the downtown district had accomplished much to establish itself as a tourist destination, it had become too reliant upon that and more appeal for residents was needed for a stable economy.

According to Mark Reggentin, Mount Dora Deputy City Manager, who also oversees planning and development, the Florida Department of Transportation’s plan originally was just for the westside 429 expressway to add a northwest leg to Mount Dora, from its present exit south of Zellwood. But then, the final leg of the city-round belt of toll roads connecting Mount Dora to Sanford (and the 417) was approved, and it became the Wekiva Parkway — the completion a toll road encircling all of Orlando.

Suddenly some new opportunities for the city arrived. “In initial growth meetings we had with regional planners,” Reggentin says, “it was suggested that there was potential for commercial (non-residential) growth in this area.”

While the regional high density office market is fairly widely dispersed, three major centers do account for 30 percent of Central Florida’s building space: Downtown Orlando, Maitland Center, and Lake Mary/Heathrow. The Lake Mary/Heathrow submarket rivals Downtown Orlando in total jobs, and has grown the most of the three major centers in recent years.

Lake Mary is home to a Verizon Financial Center, AT&T, Siemens, Duke Energy, Cingular Wireless, SunGard, FISERV Solutions and the corporate headquarters of American Automobile Association (AAA). It also is the closest major employment center to Mount Dora, and will be linked to it by the Wekiva Parkway.

Reggentin — who had been a city planner for Lake Mary when its commercial park took off 25 years ago — saw a great parallel to Mount Dora. He saw how a commercial district located in Mount Dora could easily be linked, perceptually, with Lake Mary’s major office submarket. He and former city manager Michael Quinn began discussions with council about whether the city could or should facilitate such a plan.

Those discussions — about how to create that draw in an economically viable way that fits the City’s character — was the driving force behind the 2011 Envision Plan, the result of a months-long visioning process by city staff, council members, business leaders, volunteer organizations and hundreds of citizens. (See “A Vision for the Future That Respects the Past.”) The visioning plan was approved by Council in 2011 as all of the other planning documents created by the city were brought together to form a central planning document for the city’s next 20 years.

The Envision Plan looks at many aspects of growth throughout Mount Dora over the coming years, including access to the city from the Golden Triangle Shopping area, the Grandview and Highland Street corridors, connectivity of neighborhoods and communities through bike trails and wellness paths, and other environment-friendly attractions. The just-completed, three-year downtown construction and streetscape project was part of the Envision Plan, with a future gaze toward increased parking, waterfront connectivity and a Fourth Avenue pedestrian mall. Preserving the city’s historic character is a fundamental pillar.

Conceptual map of the Innovation District.

A centerpiece recommendation of the Envision Plan for Mount Dora’s future was the development of the Innovation District (back then called the Employment Center), a 1,300-acre planned mixed use, employment-based economic district located at a Wolf Branch transportation hub that includes SR 46, US 441 and the coming Wekiva Parkway extension. It would offer a mix of residential, office, retail, industrial, high tech and institutional sites, as well as a network of trails, outdoor spaces and natural features. (To get a sense of scale, downtown Mount Dora is about 50 acres.)

Many citizens will have a hard time pairing that vision with what they currently see around town. The presence of such a big commercial hub may even seen antithetical to our local nature.

But there are clear benefits for the city, says Michael Tedder, the at-large council representative currently running for re-election. “A broader tax base is the number one benefit we get from this (the Innovation Center),” he says. “We don’t want to raise taxes, and we aren’t getting the trickle-down benefits we used to from the state. We have to be more self-sufficient. We have to fill more stores downtown. The revenue we’ll get from city services extended out to the Innovation District, plus a wider tax base, both will give the city the resources it needs to grow on the one hand and preserve its historical character on the other.”

If Mount Dora can pull off the plan, the Innovation District will be a magnet for professionals to live and work in the area, where before commuting to Orlando is for many the only option. Instead of its status as a bedroom community (or exurb) for those workers, a city to live in, with income to buy and upgrade houses and spend time and money downtown. (For comparison, according to the 2000 census, the median household income in Mount Dora was $37,364, while in Lake Mary it was $83,921.)

Cal Rolfson is the council member currently representing District 2, an area that includes both the Country Club and the Northeast community within Mount Dora. “Lots of areas around the Innovation District will see benefits — the entire City of Mount Dora, Eustis, Tavares, Sorrento. In my district, I see a huge benefit for constituents in the Northeast community where unemployment has traditionally been higher than in the rest of the city. The creation of so many jobs will bring much-needed opportunity,”says Rolfson.

According to Robert Chandler, Lake County Director of Economic Growth and one of the partners in the joint county-city effort to bring about the Innovation District, the economic benefits will affect all of northern Lake County. “This is a huge deal for us,” says Chandler. “Currently about 17% of the county’s tax base is non-residential tax base. Our goal is to get it up to the mid-20s, and this project is essential. This will create jobs for people across north Lake County.”

— David Cohea (djcohea@gmail.com)

Originally published at www.mountdoracitizen.com on October 5, 2015.

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