A study through a mutual contractor could lead to the creation of an employment hub for Ocoee and Winter Garden along State Road 429, which serves as much of the border of the two cities.
The mutual contractor performing the study, Real Estate Research Consultants, qualified through the Tri-City partnership, which also includes Apopka.
State Rep. Randolph Bracy was able to help procure a $100,000 grant for Ocoee to use for this study, with a goal of finding which businesses would best fit along the S.R. 429 corridor.
“One of our goals for this district is economic development in the area,” Bracy said. “(The study) does a lot of necessary infrastructure planning to get the area ready for business improvement.”
Bracy said plans, such as drawings and architecture, would be submitted in February or March as a result of the study. Based on the number of industrial companies near S.R. 429, there could be something to complement the businesses already developed there, he said.
“Just talking with the Ocoee staff, I know they would like to see something along the lines of Fortune 500 headquarters, along the lines of what Lake Mary has done with AAA and now Verizon,” Bracy said. “There’s different industries, like tech industries, but I don’t want to speculate too much. I wanted to do as much as I can for my district, and I had a conversation with the economic development staff. Craig Shadrix was telling me about this study. I decided to put it in appropriations.”
Shadrix, the assistant city manager for Ocoee, delivered a presentation about the Department of Economic Opportunity’s $100,000 grant to the Ocoee City Commission Dec. 2, when the commission unanimously approved the grant and this study. That money will pay for just Ocoee’s part of the study, with Winter Garden paying for what the study covers in its territory. The section of importance for these two cities stretches from Florida’s Turnpike at the south end to Clarcona-Ocoee Road at the north end.
“In general, we’re really blessed because, for all the goals and efforts about to be underway, we have an incredible road network,” Shadrix said. “S.R. 429 will connect to Wekiva Parkway. It connects to 415 with Maitland; you can get on 50; and you can get on the turnpike. It will even drop you off at the back door of Disney. Positionally, you couldn’t ask for a better connected road system than that of 429. It’s really the spinal column of West Central Florida when you think about it.”
“We have a lot to gain by teaming up with Winter Garden and with Apopka, because we all have similar interests in that corridor, especially with Winter Garden,” Ocoee Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen said.
Tanja Gerhartz, the economic development director for Winter Garden, said three key interchanges along S.R. 429 would be part of the study: State Road 50; East Plant and West Franklin streets; and West and Clarcona-Ocoee roads. The first two interchanges would involve Winter Garden to the west and Ocoee to the east, whereas the last interchange would involve Ocoee and Apopka, she said.
“Our boundaries are right up against one another, so when you look at an interchange, you look at a full interchange and what can be done there,” Gerhartz said. “Working together, we can address the whole interchange and try to do the same things, so it’s seamless development and a mixed-use business park. We’re not going to really know for sure until the study is done, but those are some things we’ll be addressing: Is there demand to support a mixed-use business park? What types of businesses? What are the land uses? We believe we could be the next Lake Mary and build a park like that, probably at the East Plant Street-Franklin interchange.”
About 45 acres of parcels at the northwest corner of that intersection, extending north with East Crown Road on the other side, could be particularly significant, Shadrix said.
The business park in that interchange is the aspect Winter Garden’s staff feels strongest about, but each interchange will differ by the surrounding uses and road network, Gerhartz said. Whereas S.R. 50 runs east and west, S.R. 429 runs north and south, which essentially makes it a bypass for Interstate 4, directly into the west end of Disney, she said.
“You could see more retail at the S.R. 50 area,” she said. “Until the study is done and they do the market scan, I don’t know. You could see a little bit of everything: hotel uses, residential, office, commercial. We’re looking at the economic potential and development potential of those interchanges, how they should work, how big they should be, what the road network should be, what infrastructure is needed. We’re looking at the market viability. What will the market bear in terms of square footage long-term for the different areas?”
With many variables, true success in determining what is best for everyone will only be achieved through cooperation among the cities sharing the corridor, Shadrix said.
“We have very similar goals as far as the type of quality of environment we want to create in the future in West Orange County,” he said. “I think (cooperation) is critical. They will be less successful if we’re not there with them, and vice-versa. If we’re in it alone, it’s not going to be as good as if we’re in it together. We’re really excited to be working with our neighbor in this and have the state funding, and we think it’s going to be the start of some very good things in this area.”
REVITALIZING DOWNTOWN OCOEE
The city with the most to gain from the development of this corridor of S.R. 429 is Ocoee, not only because it is the only city involved in all three major interchanges, but also because the study could help to improve and recreate its downtown, much like Winter Garden did.
“Historic downtown is McKey Street,” Shadrix said. “It looks like a historic old downtown, not even a full city block. Drive the corridor to see our perspective. Winter Garden has a growing downtown. Ours is not. One of the outcomes of this study will be drawings that help us promote growth in our downtown. Ocoee is growing faster than any other city in the state. We have an opportunity to promote economic development with an employment center.”
Seeing the revitalization of downtown Ocoee has been one major goal of the city’s commission, Shadrix said.
“It’ll be helpful to get energy going in that corridor,” Shadrix said. “Jobs will make everything happen. That help supports everything we want to do. Our downtown is smaller than Winter Garden’s and has largely remained unchanged for decades. The commission wants to see that changed and revitalize that area. It fits our goals with Winter Garden to develop an employment center. I think we’re going to develop a unique downtown with its distinct character, and I think as we get more quality businesses, we’ll have that.”
Members of the Ocoee community have been involved in questionnaires and other forms of feedback, looking at aspects such as visual preferences with a good response rate, Shadrix said.
“Everyone wants to have downtown spaces with improved quality of life, from restaurants to recreation areas and more,” he said. “Highways and jobs stabilize local economies, which increase income and help drive higher-end housing markets. We’ll be doing a lot of processing of this to come before the public for thought, but we’ve already had a lot of input from the public to make this sector an employment center. I think everyone recognizes it’s key to our downtown. The Plant-Franklin corridor connects downtown Winter Garden and downtown Ocoee, so this is a step in the right direction of bringing a corporate environment to Ocoee in 429.”
But this corridor is only part of the improvements Ocoee has in store. For instance, as part of an effort to make the city prettier, Shadrix and other members of the Ocoee staff are trying to make Ocoee the first city in the state with LED streetlights, he said. Such lights could be added soon along S.R. 50, between Good Homes Road and West Oaks Mall, as part of the completion of the widening project in that section of S.R. 50. The Florida Department of Transportation offered $120,000 to cover the installation of LED lights in this section of road by Duke Energy.
“Anything we’re doing now to beautify the area is good,” Shadrix said. “We’re working with Windermere and Winter Garden to make a regional trail system. It all ties in to the more beautiful we can make it — parks, trails, healthy initiatives we can introduce — makes it more attractive to employees we want to introduce to our employment center. We get tagged a lot for having all these studies sitting on shelves, but I think with this we’re finally going to see something really special.”
INVESTING IN WEST ORANGE COUNTY
In addition to an investment in the future of Ocoee, Shadrix sees this study as an investment in West Orange County as a whole.
“You have Horizon (West), Ocoee and Winter Garden, Apopka to the north,” he said. “We’re starting to see a lot of activity, Florida Hospital and Health Central expanding in Winter Garden and Ocoee, industrial expansion in Apopka and, hopefully, class-A corporate space between the two cities. Even from that Plant-Franklin interchange, you can hop on 429 and go just about anywhere in 15 minutes: Orlando, Maitland, Disney — 20 is more realistic to Disney, but you’re really centrally located. We have some really high-end housing stock. You have downtown Winter Garden, which we hope, really, Ocoee turns into, and we hope it can turn into something faster than a lot of places that are just getting up and running.”
Shadrix thinks the study will give all involved a reality check as to what they must do to accomplish the goals their elected officials have outlined for them, he said. That would involve an action plan, with specifics such as costs and ideal uses for each area, with a concerted effort needed to make it a reality, he said.
“If we are successful, it could be the beginning of some great relationships with West Orange County and the state,” Shadrix said. “The state tends, over time, to fund areas that tend to get things done. Our elected officials want to get things done. Typically, you see local governments scrambling to get funding for this kind of study at the end of the fiscal year, and hopefully we’ll be able to tackle some of those items on our agenda as an end result. We are tremendously grateful to Rep. Bracy and all who worked with him on that grant at the state level, because it actually shows state investment to West Orange and the overall investment of the state in Central Florida.”
Bracy agreed with Shadrix that this project could be a sign of great things to come.
“I think that 429, when it’s completed, you’re going to get something that’s first-rate,” Bracy said. “Property values will go up. We’re shooting for a world-class city, something along the lines of what Austin, (Texas) has been able to do out there. They’ve got a variety of businesses unparalleled in any other city. You’ve got a lot of cities primed to copy what they’ve done. It’s all about finding businesses that fit this area. You’re going to have jobs for people, but also an area that is visually appealing and makes the city better.”
Ocoee: Florida Turnpike to Clarcona-Ocoee Road
Distance on S.R. 429: 4.2 miles
Winter Garden: Florida Turnpike to East Plant Street