Mount Dora pursues concept plan, funding for 1,300-acre innovation district

GrowthSpotter contributor

Mount Dora, a Lake County city known for its quirkiness, walkability and small-town feel, is moving forward with a plan to shape a high-powered employment district out of 1,300 acres to its east.

Dubbed the Wolf Branch Innovation District, the area is composed of 172 mostly-vacant land parcels with 134 different owners, and is bordered by the Lake/Orange county line to the south, Wolf Branch Road to the north and bisected by S.R. 46 and the newly-completed S.R. 453, a spur of S.R. 429 which is part of the Wekiwa Parkway system.

Mount Dora officials retained the services of Orlando-based Levey Consulting LLC headed by Richard Levey, a former Tavistock executive best known for shaping the 11,000-acre Lake Nona community and consulting on the 24,000-acre Sunbridge community in Orange and Osceola counties. Levey presented his findings at Mount Dora’s June 5 City Council meeting. 

The single most important thing the city and county can do to be successful in attracting high-value and high-wage employers to the proposed district is to protect Mount Dora’s unique quality of place, Levey said. The city has built a reputation as a creative and eclectic community with a strong commitment to public amenities and events.

Compiling and soothing the disparate land ownership interests poses a challenge, unlike the land in Lake Nona which is mostly all owned by Tavistock Development Company.

“It’s an ongoing dialogue about prospective users,” Levey told GrowthSpotter. “The city doesn’t own any land. You’re acting on behalf of more than a hundred land owners with competing voices and identifying potential users.”

The land lies within unincorporated Lake County, but the plan is to annex it into the City of Mount Dora, which will provide infrastructure and utilities, said Mayor Nick Girone. 

"Right now the infrastructure is complete as far as we can go. But we’re stopped as of right now, we can’t do anything until we obtain a grant [from Lake County’s Agency of Economic Prosperity], unless another company comes in ahead of time," he said. "We did what we had to do, we’ve got our connections right up to Round Lake Road.

"We’re applying within a month or two and should have the paperwork ready to send in an application," Girone continued. "There is $15 million left on the current roll, it’s very competitive. We have to get the grant worded in a way with drawings and videos that put us hopefully in the forefront.”

Construction of the Wekiwa Parkway and expansion of S.R. 46 from Sanford to Mount Dora have all reduced the time it takes to get from the Lake County city to downtown Orlando, Girone said.

"It’s put it into a more realistic frame," Girone said. "We have developers and companies calling us up."

The city is seeking information technology companies, hospitals, educational health institutions, pharmaceuticals, health research facilities and other high-end tech companies. 

"Lake County is supporting the City of Mount Dora in developing the Wolf Branch Innovation District, a future employment center focused around technology, education and high-wage job creation capitalizing on the access provided by the new Wekiva Parkway Extension,” said Brandon Matulka, executive director for the Lake County Agency for Economic Prosperity.

The agency believes the plan will build on the existing strengths of Mount Dora as a vibrant, unique city which is already a destination attracting a wide variety of business professionals and tourists.

Meanwhile, Levey said the next steps are to amend the Future Land Use designation for the vast project area, which is overbudgeted for office space — a use that has diminished with the impact of technology and connectivity.

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