A group of religious leaders in east Winter Garden invited residents to get on board with coming changes in their neighborhood.
The second in a series of community meetings hosted by Pastor Byron Stevenson and several churches in east Winter Garden was held Monday, July 15, at the West Orlando Christian Center, and city of Winter Garden officials were invited to participate. Both religious and government leaders continued to urge residents in the area to embrace the positive changes that are coming and to get involved with city discussions.
Harold Bouler, a former Winter Garden city commissioner, and pastors Stevenson, Xerxes Snell and Elliot Brown led the meeting, with input from City Manager Mike Bollhoefer, City Commissioner Mark Maciel and Police Chief Steve Graham.
The city embarked on a plan for the east side of Winter Garden in March 2018, one that includes five essential ideas: to create “one Winter Garden” and increase connections between historic downtown and east Winter Garden while adding destinations along Plant Street for outdoor dining, new businesses and more jobs; to increase homeownership and housing options while respecting the scale of the existing community; to improve health and recreation, safety and security, including encouraging more healthy food options in the area and providing activities and training for all ages; to add new destinations within walking and biking distance, including West Orange Trail extensions; and to continue support for initiatives underway, including churches, church missions, nonprofits and non-governmental organizations.
Snell, who has been a church pastor for nearly two decades, is excited about the community’s future.
“I see a lot of great things on the horizon,” Snell said. “When I see where this community is going, I think about going to the next level. Anytime you’re going to a higher level, it always involves some type of change. … Without change, everything is going to stay the same. … We’re going to have to embrace the change that is here.”
Bouler acknowledged that some residents will want the community to remain the same as it always has been, but he asked them to embrace the progress. Snell encouraged a unified effort and told those in attendance to appropriately approach City Hall with ideas and opinions.
“We don’t want to be on the bad side of change; we want to be on the good side of it,” Stevenson said. “We definitely don’t want everything to happen around us.”
Bollhoefer said when city officials began Winter Garden’s redevelopment in the 1990s, they concentrated on the historic downtown area to build up revenues. Now, funding is in place to move redevelopment efforts into east Winter Garden, he said.
If Orange County grants the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency an extension from 2023 to 2033, Bollhoefer said, this will give city $10 million in funding.
“One of the things I hear about the most … is the fear of gentrification,” he said. “I can assure you that is not our intention. … The plan in east Winter Garden is redevelopment without gentrification. … What you’ll see is a (historic) community redeveloped with the same families … but you will see a big improvement.”
The city plans to start the redevelopment work at Tenth and Center streets but must first decide what to do with the large group of people who spend a great deal of time there without displacing them.
“We looked into an option of a building to create some kind of club, a place to have a drink and play games,” Bollhoefer said “We’ve tossed around several ideas.”
“We understand there is a cross section of people there who hang out at that corner,” Maciel said. “That’s almost unheard of to have a city manager say he wants to open a bottle club.”
Maciel and Bollhoefer said city officials have been talking to them in hopes of finding a solution and the city welcomes any ideas residents might have.
“One of the things we have to accomplish ... as we move forward, I think it’s critical for us as a city is to find a way to bring everyone together,” Bollhoefer said. “If we’re going to be successful, we’ve got to find a way to get everyone working together.”
The Winter Garden Police Department is beefing up its Community Oriented Policing program and will place school resource officers in all Winter Garden schools, including Maxey Elementary, which is located on the east side.
Chief Graham said it is important for police officers to get to know the children in the city and to interact with them so they have a positive view of police.
Bollhoefer said the city will be meeting with individual property owners and is planning a city-sponsored community meeting. The initial housing projects will take place along Center Street.
“Within the next year you should see a lot of projects starting,” he said.
Commissioner Maciel reiterated the importance of residents becoming involved in the city decisions. He said he would like to see more diversity on the city’s boards, in the city’s staff and on the City Commission.
Bollhoefer suggested those in attendance attend commission meetings and budget meetings so they can fully understand the process.