Open, but ready for business?

Mount Dora council considers creating separate economic planning function 

When Mount Dorans thought of economic development in decades past, the problem roared right through the center of town.

So did the solution.

The decision to move US-441 was debated for years. Some felt that as the area grew, the increased traffic through the center of town would destroy its character. (In 1955, Mount Dora’s mayor worried that eventual widening would force the removal of shade oaks along Fifth Avenue.) Others worried that by moving the corridor to the city’s east side, downtown businesses would take a hit.

Both were probably right, though only one thing is for sure: it took decades for downtown Mount Dora to find sure footing again.

Was it good economic planning? In the long run, yes. Imagine the sort of traffic now seen on 441 trying to jam itself through the center of Mount Dora, the way 441 bottlenecks in Apopka’s present city center.  Furthermore, the rebuilding of downtown forced a level of planning and prescience that took decades to build and calibrate right mix of shops, events, parks and infrastructure.

Wekiva Parkway expansion is coming to Mount Dora
Wekiva Parkway expansion is coming to Mount Dora

Now comes the challenge of immense growth on Mount Dora’s east side. How big will it get? With the city looking to double its population by 2030, it’s easy to imagine a major shopping complex on State Road 46 or Round Lake Road near the planned Innovation District. Will we become like Sanford, with sprawling mega-retail complex next to the highway and struggling town center a few miles away?

Strong leadership in economic development would seem vital for Mount Dora at this crossroads. The question is, who will do it, and what vision will they be guided by?

Things have been somewhat in free-fall since the rash of staff departures early in the year. City manager Vincent Pastue resigned, and city attorney Cliff Shepard was replaced by Lonnie Groot. In the planning department, planning and zoning manager Mark Reggentin took a job in Apopka as its community planning manager, and CRA manager Gus Gianikas now works in Ocala city government as a senior planner. Planning manager Vince Sandersfeld was named interim director and he’s been wearing all the hats.

Nick Girone campaigned for mayor on a platform of economic growth, and after winning the seat last November, he promised to embarked on a series of business initiatives. In his State of the City address, Girone put it this way:

We need to continue to encourage planned, controlled growth by taking action steps to make it happen—we cannot just wait for new businesses to ‘discover’ Mount Dora. Our City Council, our citizen boards, our existing business owners, our citizens, our city organizations and our city staff need to work in unity to make our future happens in the way we plan.

Mayor Girone was asked to comment for this story on what economics projects he’s been working on, but he did not reply.

Mount Dora spring collectibles and crafts show
Mount Dora spring collectibles and crafts show

Now there’s talk about creating a separate economic planning function. At several recent city council meetings, at-large representative Mark Slaby has mentioned the need. (He was asked to comment for this story on what he was envisioning, but he did not reply.)

At their July 9 strategic planning/goal setting workshop, hiring an economic planning director and creating an economic development plan were both declared a top-tier council priority.  (Others included a planning for future growth in the Innovation District,  maintenance of existing infrastructure, developing strategies for increasing the city’s fund balance and developing a new master plan for parks and recreation.)

Previously the task of economic development fell to former planning and zoning director Mark Reggentin. In his 22-year tenure, Reggentin’s accomplishments included an overhaul of the city’s development plan and land development code, completion of the Envision Mount Dora plan, historic preservation projects, and the 3-year downtown infrastructure  / streetscape project. Reggentin was also central in long-range planning for the city’s upcoming Innovation District, modeled on work he had done as a city planner for Lake Mary’s commercial district.

Who now? According to Sandersfeld, the department recently tried to hire a staff person in the dual role of economic development as well as community redevelopment. It didn’t work out, he says. “The search concluded that this type of staff position is not available in the market nor fits the immediate expectations of Mount Dora.”

With the added direction from council coming out of their strategic planning meeting, Sandersfeld says his department is now looking create a separate economic development position with the goal of creating an economic development plan for the city.  It’s a big job. “Economic development can include business retention and expansion, business attraction, marketing, etc.,” he wrote in an email.

He added that a candidate search for a Principal Planner with responsibilities similar to those held by Mark Reggentin is underway.  Council is interviewing candidates for its permanent city manager, and hopes to have that filled by Aug. 26 when Interim City Manager Leinbach resigns.  (Note: On July 30, council decided to negotiate with Robin Hayes, currently management services and communications manager for the City of Oviedo, for the job of Mount Dora’s permanent city manager.)

Site of EPIC Theaters, which now plans to open in June 2017.
Site of EPIC Theaters, which now plans to open in June 2017.

Whether recent controversies are making it hard to find qualified candidates for the economic development job, or that the search for a high profile of responsibilities is complicated by budget limitations in a tight job market, Sandersfeld acknowledges that the right person for the job of economic development may not be found quickly enough.

Therefore, the city may instead hire a consultant to begin the work. This actually may be a better way to “set the foundation for a successful program,” Sandersfeld says, since so many aspects are involved—”economic assessment, economic planning, business retention/expansion, fiscal impact analysis, market research/analysis, fiscal impacts, etc.” With a solid economic development plan created by the consultant, an Economic Development Director would then be recruited.

Sandersfeld added that these proposals are only that right now— Council needs to  approve them.

At the July 19 council meeting, interim city manager Kim Leinbach mentioned a rough price tag of $200,000 a year to start for adding an economic development resources in City Hall. He added that if the city wants to keep its budget balanced, something else will have to come out.

It’s hard to argue the necessity of purposeful and directed economic planning by the city. So many areas of the city are in need of development, including downtown, the Golden Triangle, two active Community Redevelopment Agencies (CRA), Highland Street, sites along 441, the newly-purchased property at Pineapple Point. And then there are those 1,300 acres of office, retail, industrial, high tech, educational, institutional and high-density residential still just orange groves and fields and utilities pipe, all waiting for the Wekiva Parkway to build out and Mount Dora to make its deals.

Preparing pipe for utilities relocations along US-441 and SR-46.
Preparing pipe for utilities relocations along US-441 and SR-46.

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Opportunities are knocking fast elsewhere. Apopka just announced a major plan to develop a 34-acre city center which will include a number of restaurants, a grocery store and a 70-room hotel. (Mark Reggentin has found productive employment elsewhere.) Tavares is adding an eight-acre park next to the Lake County Jail that will greatly improve stormwater flow into Lake Dora and add Ruby Street to their emerging downtown / waterfront development—a project which utility customers will only have to pay half of the estimated $5.3 million cost due to creative financing with the state. The city of Eustis is negotiating with Lake County to run utilities just north of the Innovation District, and is working with commercial partners to market a 4.8-acre parcel of land for downtown development.

Compared to that, not much seems to be happening here. The only major commercial project of late for the city has been the EPIC Theaters project, finally now underway after months of haggling with the city (it’s projected to open in June 2017._ The opening of 1921 by Norman Van Aken on Fourth Avenue is a big coup for downtown, but Main Street Leasing pulled that one off, not the city.

Council seems ready now to act, but can the city afford it? Despite campaign promises for fiscal responsibility, you can’t say the new council has been spendthrift.

In December, Laurie Tillett (First District) proposed creation of a citizen tree commission and passage of an aggressive new tree preservation and care ordinance. The draft submitted to the City Manager in June was based in part on Winter Park’s tree program, which has an annual expense of more than $1 million. (There are other tree programs with much more tempered goals; Eustis has a 10-year tree program with an estimated ten-year cost of $1.8 million.)  Mark Slaby has also pushed for heightened code enforcement, to the point of asking police chief O’Grady what he would do if he had more money to do it with. And the new city attorney has been busy with a much wider mandate from the mayor and council, reviewing the charter and given more granular responsibility for approving contracts and other agreements. Since Lonnie Groot came on board, monthly billings have ballooned.

Home construction in the Lakes of Mount Dora
Home construction in the Lakes of Mount Dora

Mount Dora took a huge financial hit in 2008, and it took seven years to finally balance the budget. Striving to do so, past councils have had to draw on reserves or delay expenditures. Those now too come to roost. At the July 19 meeting alone, council approved replacement of City Hall’s HVAC unit ($120,000, five years late), a backup generator for one of its lift stations which has been in service for more than 20 years ($68,000) and the replacement of two fire trucks from the city’s aging fleet ($1.02 million in a 3-year lease-purchase agreement.)

When you add the $30 million in upcoming utility relocation projects, you see red ink tracking in all over.

So figuring out how to strike a balance between fiscal responsibility and spending the money needed to maximize the city’s return on future economic development will be crucial. Decisions made now need to be wise, and future councils will need to be disciplined to see them through.

And maybe this is too big a job for just one city to handle. Mel DeMarco, who served as mayor back when the city was looking hard at ways to stimulate growth, suggests that the current council might consider a different course. “There are alternatives to hiring an economic development director,” she says. “That kind of position seemed to be all the rage a decade or so ago, especially when we in the depths of the big recession.”

“But, people found it wasn’t necessarily an effective way to operate.  Lake County already has an economic development department, there is a Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission … there are other choices, ones we currently pay for as taxpayers,” she says.

DeMarco added that small communities like Mount Dora usually incorporate economic development within their existing planning function. For something larger in scope, partnering might make better sense for all parties involved. “I would love to see us sit down with our neighboring communities to discuss the potential of working together through the county— that each of us could contribute to a single position that focused on the economic potential of this portion of the county,” she said.

“Imagine how much more effective a presentation from an economic development director would be if he or she could say she represented three cities and the County of Lake.”

“Imagine how much less expensive for taxpayers,” she added.

Mount Dora visitors tour Lake Dora
Mount Dora visitors tour Lake Dora

Economic development decisions now coming into view are much like the decision to move 441, with impacts that will be felt many years hence. (In many ways, the relocation of 441 continues to generate issues the city needs to figure out.)

Short-term solutions tend to create longer-term problems.  After the storm of 1993 when 500 trees were toppled and another 1,500 were split, an arborist recommended planting laurel oaks because they would grow the canopy back faster.  Destructive thunderstorms in 2015 and 2016 shows the folly of that decision.

When leadership is not strong and effective, governments have a bad habit of kicking difficult cans down the road. Mount Dora delayed for years the building of its first sewage plant, dumping effluent instead into Lake Dora.

Fortunately, a good amount of brain-storming for economic development was accomplished back in 2010 when Mount Dora went through a vision planning process with a consultant. The project, which cost $100,000, established Envision Mount Dora, which looked at future growth Mount Dora and asked citizens and businesses alike where they wanted to the city to be. Council approved the plan in 2011, and the city amended the objectives, goals and policies of its Comprehensive Plan to reflect it.

If you want to get a good feel for the scope of development issues identified by the Envision Plan, you can read our piece about it here, or download the final report here.

How much is the current council bought into the Envision Plan? Council did place updating and implementation of the Envision Plan on its second tier of legislative priorities (as well as developing a master plan for future infrastructure, building a new Public Services building and and making a complete evaluation of special events).

Hopefully a crowded plate won’t have the result of squandering the $100,000 investment the city made in the Envision Plan coming up with a different way of looking into the future. That’s an expensive wheel to recreate.

And the clock is surely ticking.

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David Cohea, Writer (david@mountdoracitizen.com)