As the Wekiva Parkway nears,major construction in the area begins.

6: The City Rolls Up Its Sleeves

For most residents, signs of the looming growth are still hard to find. The best evidence of it so far may be the disappearance of “For Sale” signs in neighborhoods. According to Marie Rich, at-large council representative and a real estate agent, inventory is low with more buyers and fewer choices. “Real estate is going strong, ” she says. “There are quite a few estate companies in a small radius in Mount Dora waiting for the boom to happen.”

No one’s talking much about the stretch of US-441 on either side of 46 right now, but there’s a huge amount of relatively undeveloped real estate there — and except for the Publix Plaza at Stoneybrook Hills and a nearby Dollar General, nothing new has gone in for years.

But the apparent calm before the storm is just about over.

While some of the local players have been working on the area’s growth plan for years, new city manager Vince Pastue is just now rolling up his sleeves. “It’s great to get to work with such a well-thought-out plan in hand,” he says. “In my first budget I echoed the need to not jump at the first thing that comes to us and keep to modest growth.”

The city will be taking a lot of the financial hits early, years ahead of any anticipated tax revenue coming the commercial zone. Road work begins next year to expand three stretches of US-441 and SR-44, and the city is responsible for first relocating all the utilities under them. (See “Major Water Utility Projects Weigh Down Mount Dora Budget,” MDC Aug. 28)

According to Pastue, many city departments will be heavily engaged in that work — public works, planning and zoning, engineering.

And it’s the city manager’s responsibility for developing a budget capable of handling such huge costs in infrastructure development.

One way to soften the blow to the budget would be to lower impact fees for development outside the Innovation District (such as along US-441) and have developers pay for necessary infrastructure work.

“If there’s any way we can avoid having to pay for it ourselves, it’s worth looking at,” Pastue says.

Beyond that, the monster project will be extending utilities all the way out to Round Lake Road and the Innovation District, itself. (The city’s right to provide and maintain ownership of those utilities is crucial to ensuring the land is developed for its planned commercial use.) The planning and execution will require and extraordinary effort.

“We’re doing ongoing studies on how to do that,” Pastue says. “Looking at our organization. Assessing how to go about it. How do we restructure it to meet the increased need?”

Then there is the way the city conducts its business with businesses and residents alike. The city needs to be a smart, responsive and efficient partner for homeowners looks to renovate their homes and contractors looking to get draw permits.

Ryan Donovan, First District council representative, addressed this in an earlier interview. “We talk all the time about economic development,” he said. “But are we ready? Are we ready for whoever we attract and the processing that will have to be done? There’s going to be an explosion of activity–are we ready for them? Is the experience going to be good enough for them so they will recommend us to others?

“I want to make sure that the right things are in place. We don’t want to ‘policy’ ourselves out of economically developing. Some people say the city is difficult or hard to work with. I believe in being safe — it’s the reason we look the way we do. But we have to work continuously at our process and make sure it isn’t too stringent, that there aren’t so many steps to get through.” Donovan says he’s asked the city manager to review customer service in city departments and commit to a higher standards of excellence.

And while all this work is underway, the marketing of the Innovation District must become focused. Some have suggested that that work is so important there is a need to create an economic development director position, an economic development committee — or both.

Fourth of July Parade, Mount Dora, 2015

Meanwhile, parks and buildings need to be maintained, streets swept, trees cared for, roads paved, signage improved, parking needs explored, safety services kept at its best, bike trails laid in, July 4 parades made festive and many festivals to be held: The whole business of the city must go on as it grows, serving all of its citizens — long-standing and new-arriving, on both sides of 441, in upscale and struggling neighborhoods — better all the time.

Next: Protecting Mount Dora’s small town charm.

— — David Cohea (djcohea@gmail.com)

Originally published at www.mountdoracitizen.com on October 17, 2015.

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