FORECAST: Ocoee on the rise as city sees largest growth period in its history
With City Center West Orange, a redevelopment of downtown and more than 1,000 homes coming, Ocoee leaders are ready for a big 2020.
| 3:16 p.m. January 8, 2020
West Orange Times & Observer
There’s an old saying many use to describe economic development in West Orange County: A rising tide lifts all boats.
As the growth in the area continues, local municipalities are following that trend — particularly the city of Ocoee. In recent years, the city has experienced the largest growth period in its history. Much of that can be attributed to changes in the city’s development review process.
“You have to set yourself up for the good (economic) times, so when the economy was down a bit eight to 10 years ago, we took a lot of time and put a lot of good plans in place,” Assistant City Manager Craig Shadrix said. “I had been tasked with trying to change our development practices. We were rated very poorly 10 to 12 years ago in terms of being difficult to work with, somewhat onerous as far as the (development) process goes and those kinds of things.
“We changed a lot of policies to make ourselves more efficient, and we ended up saving (time),” he said. “We cut about 75% of the time we were taking (in the past) out of the process. (Before), site plans were taking a couple years to get approved, and we’re usually in a six-month timeframe now. We’ve drastically improved the way we do business.”
Shadrix added the city also improved the way it does business by hiring staff that is responsive to the needs of customers. The city also implemented an online-based building permit system. In addition to the quick turnaround for getting development projects through the review process, the city’s incentives program has helped, as well.
“Once the economy was right and we had the plans in place, we also put together incentive options,” Development Services Director Mike Rumer said. “The state of Florida’s tax-abatement program — we’re one of the only few cities in Orange County that adopted that. We (also) looked at places outside of the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) that we could incentivize. … A special economic enhancement district — we have that in place over a large part of our downtown and going over to (State Road) 429.”
Additionally, hundreds of new homes have been popping up — with more on the way — in Ocoee in recent years. The city also has undertaken the task of redeveloping its downtown.
Ocoee’s CRA — also known by its branded name, Fifty West — was established in 2006 to revitalize the city and improve residents’ quality of life with the creation of jobs, new infrastructure, beautification projects, new and redeveloped commercial, retail and housing options. The CRA encompasses 1,070 acres of property along the State Road 50 corridor. The CRA begins at Clarke Road to the east and is bordered on the west by S.R. 429.
Although there are multiple target areas for development within the CRA, one of the key areas is the site of City Center West Orange — a massive 300,000-square-foot, mixed-use facility that includes retail, office and residential spaces. The site is located north of State Road 50 and east of South Bluford Avenue with Maine Street running through it.
Currently, only Phase 1 of City Center West Orange is approved for development.
“Phase 1 includes … about 172,000 square feet of shopping, restaurant (and) entertainment retail components,” said Ginger Corless, CRA administrator and deputy director of development services. “It has about 480 condo units. It’s going to have a hotel. It’s also going to have an office building that’s going to be on the north side of Maine Street, which has a planned opening in 2021.”
The developers of City Center West Orange will be resuming construction this month. Within the next three years, the developers hope to complete construction related to some of the retail, hotel and entertainment components.
“This time next year, you’re going to be seeing a lot of change down there from the standpoint of things going vertical,” Corless said. “That’s going to be important for the CRA for a lot of different reasons.”
Another key component for the overall development in Ocoee is the redevelopment of downtown. The city has invested about $44 million through bonds to improve its downtown area. Two components of improving the downtown have been well underway: improvements to the city’s lakefront park and the expansion of the Lakeshore Center.
“Our downtown projects are on track and on schedule,” Shadrix said. “We’ve completed many of them now. … We’ve completed the expansion of our Lakeshore event center. It’s going well, and it’s a premier facility, and there’s nothing like it out here on the west side. … We’ve also completed the Bluford Avenue streetscape project.”
Another key component to the downtown redevelopment project has been the relocation of City Hall to a site at the northeast corner of the intersection of Bluford Avenue and East McKey Street. In October 2019, the City Commission selected a brick and precast concrete design concept for the exterior of the new building. A groundbreaking for the new City Hall is expected to be held in the spring.
“The next two to three years are going to be very exciting around here,” Shadrix said. “We’ve already seen some growth (downtown) as a result of our efforts. We have a two-story office building … that’s going in at the corner of Bluford and McKey Street, across the street from where our new City Hall is going to be.”
With all the economic development occurring in the city, residential developments have been coming along with it. Many currently are under construction, while others still are under the development review process. Most of the residential development projects are in the northern end of the city within districts 1 and 4.
“We had a development called Oak Trail Reserve, which is on the north side of Clarcona Ocoee … (with) 140 lots, and they built out in a year,” Rumer said. “We have a 198-townhome community called Greens at Forest Lake that’s coming out of the ground right now getting models issued to them. We have Inspiration Townhomes (with) 90 lots adjacent to (Florida’s) Turnpike, west of Maguire (Road).”
Rumer added that Arden Park phases 4A, 4B and 5 also will be coming out of the ground soon. Other residential developments include Ocoee Landings and Ocoee Reserve. Residential projects that still are under review are Eagle Creek, Ciara Place townhomes, Prairie Lake Reserve townhomes, CLRM and Ocoee Village Center. Additionally, an age-restricted apartment community for senior citizens called Arya Independent Living will be constructed along Roberson Road.
In total, the city has more than 1,100 units of single-family homes and about 600 apartments that will be coming out of the ground toward the beginning of the next fiscal year or later in the calendar year, Rumer said.
As more families move to Ocoee, the local schools gain more students. Many of the schools in West Orange — including in Ocoee — already are overcrowded, but Orange County Public Schools does not have any new schools planned for the Ocoee area within its 10-year capital outlay plan. Because many of the schools in Ocoee already face capacity issues, developers of residential projects have to pay school mitigation fees.
“We have one middle school and it’s overcrowded, and OCPS is putting all of their resources in Horizon West,” Rumer said. “The amount of projects — residential projects — that have had to pay mitigation and the amount of impact fees in the last less than 10 years would fund all the schools we need, but it’s all going to Lake Nona and Horizon West. ... Every residential development fails school concurrency under the Martinez Doctrine for middle schools.”
“Considering the amount of impact fee dollars generated in this city over the last 10 years, there’s more than enough money to pay for those relief schools — especially given the fact that we already have land set aside,” Shadrix said.
Furthermore, people moving to the area also means more cars on the road. It’s no secret Orange County is suffering from ongoing traffic-related issues, and Ocoee is no exception. Many residents have complained to the county and municipalities about the traffic and question why the county and local municipalities continue to approve development projects despite the impacts to traffic and infrastructure. Under state law, local governments cannot deny a development based on traffic issues alone. Instead, developers are required to pay to mitigate traffic impacts.
Another challenge to the growth deals with costs related to construction. Because of the booming economy, growth is occurring throughout Florida, which means there’s plenty of work to go around for construction companies. Because there’s so much work, construction companies are spread thin, which impacts construction costs.
“None of us anticipated that construction costs were going to be so much higher,” Shadrix said. “This is something that everybody across Central Florida is experiencing. None of us really thought it was going to get like this. By frame of reference, some of these jobs that we’ve put out for RFP (request for proposal), the market is so flooded with jobs that some of the (RFPs) may only have one or two respondents come in because there’s so much work to go around.”