METROWEST — Last August, residents in MetroWest put their money where their mouths were.
With 93% of MetroWest members present, the community voted to secure a $2 million loan to buy out developer Carl Shakarian. The move gave MetroWest residents absolute control over their community for the first time in its history.
“Congratulations, you are now in charge of your own destiny,” MetroWest Master Association President Jim Drayton said after the vote.
It also ousted Shakarian, a South Florida businessman who five years ago bought three MetroWest acres — along with controlling interests — from former developer Kevin Azzouz.
The $2 million price tag includes those three acres and, more importantly, community control. Shakarian also was paid $120,000 annually to market the community, and leaders expect to save that amount — as well as $300,000 annually in attorney fees — following the buyout. The association borrowed the funds to purchase Sharkarian’s interest and will pay it back over five years.
Three months after the buyout, the association announced the completion of a $1.5 million irrigation project that includes a complete redesign of the community’s water distribution network.
And last month, the association elected two new members to its board of directors — longtime MetroWest resident and West Orange Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Stina D’Uva and MetroWest resident and accountant Neil Morley. D’Uva and Morley join Drayton, Vice President Howard Levene and Director Rudy Bell to constitute the first resident-controlled board.
With these changes finally in place and the calendar freshly turned to 2015, the $2 million question is a simple one with myriad answers: What now?
CONNECTING THE COMMUNITY
Topping the MetroWest Master Association’s 2015 to-do list is a strong, deliberate effort to keep the community and its residents connected. The association wants to practice the live-work-play mentality upon which MetroWest was founded, and its leaders know that will require active and frequent communication.
To that end, the association has enlisted the help of Social Media Coordinator Janet Deskins, who manages the community’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. There, Deskins posts reminders about upcoming events, publishes photos and promotes MetroWest businesses.
The community also launched its own app for the Apple iOS and Google Android platforms to give residents yet another way to connect with their community.
The community also is contemplating some significant changes to its quarterly newsletter.
“We want to strengthen the social fiber of this community,” said MetroWest Master Association Community Manager Julie Sanchez.
When D’Uva moved from New Jersey 25 years ago, she could have chosen any community in the Greater Orlando area. But she fell in love with her home in MetroWest and has remained there ever since.
“It’s central to everything,” she said. “I can be in downtown Winter Garden in 10 minutes, and I can be in downtown Orlando in 10 minutes. There are great places to eat, great places to shop, ‘A’-rated schools. I love living here.”
That’s why — even with her already-full plate serving as the chamber’s president and CEO — she has volunteered to serve in the at-times thankless role of an HOA board member.
“I want to be able to better my community,” she said.
In 2015, the community will continue doing that through a variety of community events, including its annual Smooth Summer JazzFest, SummerFest and WinterFest parties. It also hopes to further strengthen its resident core through its new public-safety initiative.
In April 2014, following more than a year of research, the community partnered with Critical Intervention Services Inc. to provide a dedicated public-safety presence within the boundaries of MetroWest. Led by Public Safety Director Patricia Schmitt, the initiative has placed 10 officers in specially marked vehicles throughout the community.
The new program launched a year after MetroWest received the Florida Communities of Excellence Safety and Security Award.
“MetroWest was proud to win the award last year, and we didn’t want to just rest on the success of our laurels,” Drayton said in a MetroWest community newsletter. “So, we sought out ways to elevate our community to an even greater level, and our choice to partner with Critical Intervention Services was because CIS was based on that same recognition for excellence that we are. When we were seeking just the right partner, whether by industry-leading experts or local police, the overwhelming consensus kept leading us back to CIS.”
Utilizing a concept called the Community and Character Based Protection Initiative, the new program seeks to build relationships and trust between residents and officers. Although the mission is to provide an added sense of security, the officers also serve as liaisons between the residents and the community’s leaders and governing agencies.
Often, the officers say hello to children waiting for the school bus. In June, the MetroWest Master Association celebrated an act of kindness by CIS officer Maj. Shaun Fogarty. Fogarty was the winner of a raffle for a 50-inch flatscreen TV at the community’s Summer Smooth JazzFest. Instead of collecting the prize, Fogarty donated it to Edgewood Children’s Ranch, the beneficiary of the event.
“It’s the return of Officer Friendly,” Schmitt said.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, MetroWest is one of the first master-planned communities to take root in Orlando.
Before MetroWest’s single-family subdivisions, condominium complexes and apartment homes dotted the land bounded by Kirkman Road to the east; Pembrooke Pines development to the south; Florida’s Turnpike to the southwest; and Steer Lake Road, Edgewood Children’s Ranch, Lake Hiawassee and Orlo Vista to the north, rows of orange groves lined the land between the city limits of Orlando and West Orange County.
Between 1980 and 1981, Aaron Dowd, vice president of Debra Inc., the company created to develop MetroWest, bought the land for $22 million in cash from 23 landowners.
Debra Inc. was owned by Debra N.V. of the Netherlands Antilles. The real owners of the corporation were never revealed.
The Orlando City Council approved the $500-million-plus development on Nov. 15, 1982, and the developer’s agreement was accepted by the city on Feb. 28, 1983. After five years and an estimated $50 million in preparation, tracts of land were sold to developers and builders for residential and business projects.
The MetroWest Master Association was established by Debra, Inc. on Feb. 17, 1986, and thereafter, all construction and design plans were first examined by the association’s Design Review Board before approval.
The original master plan for the community included up to 4,500 residential units; 6 million square feet of office space; 2.5 million square feet of retail, restaurant and industrial space; and 3,700 hotel rooms. Like other master-planned communities, the development was designed as a place where people can live, work and play.
Work on the MetroWest Golf clubhouse started in 1986; it opened the following year. Work on the 18-hole golf course began in 1987. The award-winning golf course was designed by course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. and has been managed since 2010 by Marriott Golf.
By 1989, about 700 single-family homes and villas, along with 1,300 apartment units, had been built or planned. Development also started on the community’s most exclusive residential area, Palma Vista, a 200-lot subdivision that surrounds the 13th and 14th holes of the golf course on the highest land in the community. The crest of the property, at an elevation of 198 feet above sea level, is one of the highest points in Orange County and offers views of downtown Orlando’s skyline to the east. The community’s first shopping center, MetroWest Village, located on the corner of South Hiawassee Road and Westpointe Boulevard, opened in fall 1990.
BY THE NUMBERS
$22 million — The price paid for the MetroWest acreage in 1980 and 1981.
18,500 — The number of residents in MetroWest
10,108 — The total number of homes in MetroWest as of 2013.
1,805 — The size in acres of the entire MetroWest Community.
23 — The number of original landowners who sold parcels that ultimately became MetroWest
18 — The number of golf-course holes at MetroWest Golf Club
METROWEST MASTER ASSOCIATION 2015
Jim Drayton, president
Howard Levene, vice president
Rudy Bell, director
Neil Morley, treasurer
Stina D’Uva, secretary
Elementary: MetroWest Elementary School, 1801 Lake Vilma Drive, Orlando
Middle: Gotha Middle School, 9155 Gotha Road, Windermere; or Chain of Lakes Middle School, 8700 Conroy Windermere Road, Orlando
High: Olympia High School, 4301 S. Apopka Vineland Road, Orlando
College: Valencia College West Campus, 1800 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando