WINTER GARDEN — Officials and advocates from throughout Central Florida gathered Oct. 1, at Winter Garden City Hall to celebrate progress in the Coast to Coast Connector, a regionally connected trail from St. Petersburg to Titusville.
“This will be the first regionally connected trail in the state of Florida,” said Dale Allen, president of the Florida Greenways and Trail Foundation, which initially proposed the connector. “It could be the longest regionally connected trail in the nation.”
In total, the Coast to Coast Connector will stretch 275 miles, after filling 66 miles of gaps to link 14 existing trails.
One of the smallest gaps is between the West Orange Trail and the Clarcona-Ocoee Connector Trail, part of a larger “Orange Gap.” MetroPlan Orlando Smart Growth Planner Mighk Wilson said this Clarcona-Ocoee Connector Gap would require 1.6 miles of trail, extending from the Clarcona-Ocoee Connector Trail to the West Orange Trail along Clarcona-Ocoee Road or North Apopka Vineland Road.
The other segment of the Orange Gap to fill is a stretch of 2.3 miles, starting north on North Pine Hills Road off Clarcona-Ocoee Road, heading east on Beggs Road to North Orange Blossom Trail (U.S. Route 441) and then running northwest along Route 441 to connect with Pine Hills Trail at the junction with Maitland Boulevard Extension (State Road 414).
Although neither piece of the Orange Gap is set for construction, funding for design and feasibility has been granted, Wilson said.
The total estimated cost to complete the Orange Gap is $14.3 million, according to the plan. The estimated cost of connecting all of the gaps for the Coast to Coast Connector is $74 million and should be complete within five years.
The Florida Department of Transportation received $18.8 million for 2014-15 to build the trails, which will have a target width of 12 feet, said Jim Wood, FDOT’s director of policy planning. FDOT will be involved in repaving, but another entity will manage and add amenities to the trail, he said.
WINTER GARDEN RENAISSANCE
This summit occurred in Winter Garden because of the prosperity the West Orange Trail has sparked for the area.
Winter Garden City Manager Michael Bollhoefer said a recent state study had shown an impact of $42 million to those along the trail and that property values in the area had increased more than anywhere for two consecutive years.
“It’s tough to find a parking spot here most days,” Bollhoefer said. “That’s a good thing short-term — people are visiting. We have a waiting list of people who want to bring businesses to our downtown.”
Wilson said shoots off the West Orange Trail were also impressive in their scenery and wildlife, especially the Lake Apopka Loop. He said the Oakland area had prospered immensely from furbished trails, too.
Winter Garden grew as a citrus town in the middle of the 20th century, but then it declined in the 1970s as businesses moved out and Walt Disney World opened, Bollhoefer said. In the late 1980s, local officials decided to pursue a trail project.
“We had a lot of naysayers, a lot of people who didn’t want trails downtown — they thought it would ruin the downtown,” Bollhoefer said. “Property owners didn’t want it next to them, and there were issues with the railroad.”
Winter Garden and Orange County cooperated to complete the initial trail by 1999, but it did not make much of a difference alone or immediately beautify the city, Bollhoefer said.
“We did not have a lot of economic development for at least five years,” he said. “People rode through it, and when they saw Winter Garden, they rode through as fast as they could. The local officials decided to build upon the trail for a rejuvenation of our city.”
Bollhoefer divided development of the trail into three phases. Phase one involved infrastructure and streetscape, including bricked streets, widened sidewalks, antique lights, landscaping and the clock tower.
“We had many people ride through our trail who would say, ‘We’re so proud of you all that when you built the trail, you were able to save the clock tower,’” he said. “After we finished the trail development project in 2003, you could go out and tell there was a whole different feel in Winter Garden. You could feel the life coming back to downtown.”
Phase two included restoration of the Garden Theater; converting an old fire hall into an art studio; and construction of city hall, a splash fountain, a pavilion now hosting farmers’ markets for 3,000 each Saturday and bike racks.
“If you want bicyclists to come, you’ve got to make sure they feel welcome,” Bollhoefer said. “If you make your town still-car centric, make the bicyclists stop, give them nowhere to park their bikes, don’t expect them to stop in your city. All our intersections now — except one, which we’re changing — give bicyclists the right of way.”
Phase three, the future, will include a parking garage, a parking lot, improvements to Dillard and East Plant streets, a park, additions to existing buildings, a market of more than 20 shops and farms throughout the community, including some organic crops.
“The vision of the Legislature in the 1990s was to create a statewide, connected system of greenways and trails that would give citizens and tourists another way to see and enjoy this incredibly beautiful state of ours,” Allen said. “Behind it are two trails that have been underway for almost 20 years now, ready to be connected. The northeast tip of Florida near Jacksonville would link to the Coast to Coast Connector on what we’re calling the Northeast Coast Connector. And the Southwest Coast Connector would link the Tampa area all the way to Naples.”
Allen said seven more trails could be added within a decade: the Overseas Heritage Trail linking Key West and Miami, the River of Grass Greenway linking Miami to Naples and trails linking Central Florida to North-Central Florida and Panhandle Florida. The 10 top regional trails would total about 2,000 miles and make Florida a unique global tourist destination, he said.
The trails will make biking throughout Florida much safer, which encourages cyclists to ride more than anything else, Allen said.
“We are the most dangerous state for bicyclists and pedestrians in the nation,” he said. “More bicyclists and pedestrians die on our highways and roads than any place in the U.S. One of the goals of this project is to go from the bottom of the list to the safest state for bicyclists and pedestrians.”
In addition to safety, Allen said scenery and fun were the most important factors. Scenery would make people get out of cars and on bikes, and shading the trail from sunlight to lessen heat would encourage year-round enjoyment.
But the trails are not just for cyclists.
“A lot of times, people think of these trails as linear parks, and I think that’s a very limited way of thinking,” Bollhoefer said. “They’re more than that. They’re transportation systems. In Winter Garden, we’re going to build trails throughout our entire city to link all our communities and support community wellness.”
The trails will become a multibillion-dollar industry, centered on cyclists but including restaurants and development, said Daisy Lynum, former chair of MetroPlan Orlando and former commissioner of Orlando City Council.
“Winter Garden demonstrates the enjoyment and economic development that can take place, and the impact visitors, tourists and people that love trails can have on a community,” said Linda Chapin, former Orange County mayor. “I love what’s happened in Winter Garden. It’s the clearest evidence that having a trail as part of your community or near your community is a wonderful indicator of future success.”
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].