If Town Manager Robert Smith has one goal, it’s to bring the town of Windermere into the 21st century while still retaining its small-town charm. But there’s a long list of projects still to be done before that goal is complete.
“That’s one thing I’ve never been afraid of — taking on a challenge,” Smith said.
When Smith first arrived in Windermere in 2011, his list of challenges was longer than he expected. After working as the manager for the city of Wildwood in Sumter County, he was familiar with the quirks of a rural, small town.
“I had to make a lot of changes and adjustments once the housing boom went down the tubes,” Smith said. “The previous town manager (of Wildwood) pretty much had everything going up. He had a $20 million budget, but when I took over, I had to knock out probably about $11 million to $12 million in six months. I had to do some layoffs and transitions of moving different aspects of the city, but I was able to get us on track, and they’re really financially healthy now.”
When Smith arrived in Windermere, he assumed things such as facilities, utilities and IT development were already in place.
“I thought it was going to be night and day going from rural where they didn’t have a lot of stuff, like purchasing policies, personnel policies, facilities,” Smith said. “When I came here, I thought they were going to have everything pretty much set up.”
But he was met with myriad issues from Day One — including finding a police chief willing to repair the department, which struggled with a history of corruption. And the challenge wasn’t just repairing the department’s reputation but also restoring the town’s standing in West Orange.
“I wanted to try to re-establish Windermere as a strong voice in the West Orange community,” Smith said. “Not only was the police department looked at as a bad police department, but also I think the community took a hit. But (David Ogden) is probably one of the best hires I’ve (made) in my career. He took that department from what it was to one that continuously receives awards.”
THE NEXT STEP
Now, Smith’s biggest challenge is updating the town’s facilities, utilities and roads — projects that will take years to complete.
“There’s several major issues that the town has to come to terms with,” Smith said. “No. 1, we need new facilities for the admin and for the police department. No. 2, we have to figure out how we’re going to get utilities into town. Water would be the No. 1 priority, wastewater No. 2, and underground utilities would be No. 3. And those are huge ticket items. We’re talking $30 million to $40 million. Then it’s dealing with traffic in the roads.”
Traffic concerns have long been a issue with Windermere residents as traffic through the downtown averages between 18,000 and 20,000 vehicles per day.
“We are surrounded by water bodies, even though we are among the lakes and you really can’t see them, we are the cut-through for people to get to Disney, to get to Restaurant Row,” Smith said. “And we have seen a drastic increase in cut-through traffic on our small, dirt residential roads because people don’t want to sit in traffic on Main Street. We have no intention on increasing that roadway to four lanes, because then you kill your downtown, so we’re kind of stuck trying to figure out how do we control that traffic.”
With a long list of projects still to tackle, Smith now is faced with raising the money needed to fund the various projects for the town.
“We’re very tight on how we spend money, which is a good thing but also puts us in a bind when we need to fund certain things,” he said. “I can’t shake that money tree. It’s going to have to come out of (the residents’) pocketbooks.”
Although residents may face a tax increase over the next several years, Smith said any increase would not be a major hit to their tax bill.
“When people hear of tax increase, they think the local government taxes are the highest taxes that you pay in your tax bill, which is completely false,” he said. “Ours is so incremental, so minor compared to what they’re paying in other taxes. Our ad valorem rates are the lowest in the county, so when people think I have all this money, I don’t.
“This is not a one-year fix,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been working on for the last couple of years. It’s, ‘Is there an easy way to solve these problems?’ And the answer is no. There’s huge cost and a lot of change, and people are apprehensive to change.”
PRIDE AMONG THE LAKES
Smith said the residents are deeply passionate about their community.
“There is a lot of passion, a lot of pride in the town of Windermere,” he said. “I love that. For the most part, the residents love this town. It’s a fantastic place to live and raise your children. There are generations of people who live here. There are people who have left and come back because they just love this town, and you typically don’t see that.”
Although Smith isn’t a Windermere resident, he feels the residents have accepted him as a member of the community.
“My wife and I adopted 18 months ago, and the residents threw us a baby shower,” Smith said. “That’s something you don’t see in, like, Orlando or Winter Park. Not only did they throw this party, but I felt like I was being adopted as a resident of the town of Windermere.”