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Disney among developers in Central Florida halting projects in response to coronavirus

Workers form a line on the angled roof of the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' attraction, under construction at Epcot. Taken July 2019. It is unclear if construction is expected to be complete by slated 2021 opening date.
Workers form a line on the angled roof of the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' attraction, under construction at Epcot. Taken July 2019. It is unclear if construction is expected to be complete by slated 2021 opening date.(Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

Construction work has come to a stop on Walt Disney Co. projects, all the while Central Florida’s routine flow of development is being scaled back significantly.

Experts worry the effects will hurt a recovering construction industry and the overall economic vitality of Central Florida.

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Mark Wylie, president and CEO of the local chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors Inc., said at least two contractors working on Disney projects were told to halt construction.

“I have not heard whether it has expanded into other sites, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise,” Wylie said. “The liability is pretty substantial, these are large sites with varying groups of people... everyone wants to get the virus under control so you want to limit those sorts of things.”

Construction on the new "Ratatouille" ride at Epcot seen aboard Disney Skyliner, Walt Disney World's new gondola transportation system, during a media preview September 2019.
Construction on the new "Ratatouille" ride at Epcot seen aboard Disney Skyliner, Walt Disney World's new gondola transportation system, during a media preview September 2019.(Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel)

Representatives at Walt Disney Co. did not respond to requests for comment. Earlier this week, Disney World and Universal Orlando shut down their attractions through the end of March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Orlando Health Spokeswoman Kena Lewis told GrowthSpotter are suspending construction activities within hospitals to protect patients and healthcare providers. Work will continue at offsite locations – including at the SoDo parking structure and at new medical office buildings – in accordance with CDC social distancing guidelines.

As concerns about public gatherings become more serious, local governments are also beginning to postpone or cancel meetings. In real estate, that translates to shelved projects and delayed timelines.

Late last week, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings cancelled all advisory committee or board meetings for a minimum of 30 days.

The developer had planned a splashy celebration to mark the start of construction for downtown Orlando's largest residential project to date.

Orange County’s Development Review Committee has been moved to April 22 and the next Technical Review Group meeting will be held April 15, tentatively.

The upcoming Board of County Commissioners meeting will still take place on March 24, as planned, with several modifications, including postponing proclamations and employee service awards. Discussion and work session items are also postponed.

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Orange County spokesperson Despina McLaughlin said the county will not be halting any construction projects at this time. Orange County and Orlando, however, did enforce Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order to close bars and nightclubs for 30 days. Restaurants are being told to operate at a maximum 50% capacity.

The measures have potential to impact real estate professionals and business owners that rely on Orlando’s tourism market to help fuel and sustain their developments.

Chuck Whittall of Unicorp National Development Inc. told GrowthSpotter the company is delaying some construction starts until the virus spread is resolved.

He said he’s anticipating issues with supply chains for building material and subcontractors in the short term, but believes everyone in the industry will eventually go back to work soon.

“It is a pause,” Whittall said. In the midst of the pandemic, Whittall’s Slate restaurant in Orlando’s Dr. Phillips neighborhood has closed and Unicorp’s 600-plus room Wyndham Hotel in Orlando’s tourism corridor will be closing, he said.

City of Orlando spokesperson Karyn Barber said commercial building will continue in the city, as well as building inspection and permitting. Orlando’s Municipal Planning Board met Wednesday on schedule.

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The land owners dropped their request for Tourist Commercial land use and switched it to High Density Residential. That means a new hotel tower can't be built on the land just north of ChampionsGate resort.

Osceola County’s DRC is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning with limited staff. Chairman Jose Gomez has asked applicants to participate by teleconference. But the county canceled its March 19 Planning Commission meeting, which will delay the votes on several pending development projects, including the rezoning for proposed 355-unit Cortland Partners apartment community just north of ChampionsGate and subdivision plan approval for Eden Gardens, a new resort community on Westshore Boulevard.

County Communications Director Krystal Diaz said Osceola continues to accept and process development permits, and building inspectors are still working in the field – for now.

Lake County as well. Levar Cooper with Lake County communications department said there are no plans to halt construction in Lake County or its city municipalities to his knowledge.

Players in the real estate industry say they are and will continue to keep a close watch at how governments react to the pandemic.

Chassity Vega, executive director for the Greater Orlando Builders Association, said they are in talks with local building departments to determine if there’s any change in protocol. This comes as the city of Boston halted all non-emergency construction and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that a “shelter in place” order may come within 48 hours.

“The true concern would be: What if government offices start closing,” Vega told GrowthSpotter. “Are there going to be inspectors in the field? Are they going to be able to process permits?”

She said most homebuilding activity in the region is “business as usual.” Homebuilders have reported a slight dip in sales, but nothing alarming, she adds.

The Orlando-based homebuilder will pay $4.65 million for the 143 acre site on Canoe Creek Road.

“There’s no panic in the industry,” Vega said. “Next week, it may be a different story.”

Eric Marks, president of Avex Homes, said his sales centers are open and construction teams are working their regular schedules.

“Right now, we’re making a big push to get people in their homes if they’re scheduled for closing in the next 30 days,” Marks said.

Wylie, with Central Florida’s ABC chapter, said he fears commercial construction will be the most impacted.

In terms of jobs, the construction industry has grown at a slow pace since the great recession. He said there were about 92,000 commercial construction jobs in 2006. As of last year, the number was close to 86,000.

“We were almost back to pre-recession levels,” Wylie said. “There’s billions of dollars of work underway or planned in Central Florida."

He points to construction work being done for public schools, the Orlando International Airport, the Orange County convention center and a large amount of multifamily developments.

“When you turn off the faucet if affects a lot of people.”

This story has been updated.

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Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at arabines@GrowthSpotter.com or (407) 420-5427, or tweet me at @amanda_rabines. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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