A massive overhaul of Leesburg's Venetian Gardens complex is nearing the finish line, with the completion of a new community center this October wrapping up $13 million in improvements at the recreational hub that hugs a northwest cove of Lake Harris.
Venetian Gardens had long been considered Leesburg's gem, but over the decades since its opening during the Great Depression, the 64-acre property had lost its luster. City Manager Al Minner said due to demographic growth patterns, particularly the development of the Villages and the westward sprawl of Orlando, Leesburg "lost some of its prominence."
"As those areas became fresh and new, Leesburg wasn't fresh and new," he said. "You had 1950s things, 1970s things, and 20 more years go by and holy cow. We thought, we have to catch up to our neighbors."
In 2014, the city developed a master plan for the park involving three phases. The $1.25 million first phase brought new playground equipment, a splash pad, two covered picnic pavilions and an air-conditioned pavilion at Rogers Park. That effort recently landed Leesburg recognition from the Florida Recreation and Park Association, which honors newly designed or renovated parks and recreation facilities that serve Florida communities.
The second $2.4 million phase renovated Ski Beach, including extension of a sandy beach area, a two-lane boat ramp, improved parking, trails, and a kayak launch.
The demolition of the old community center hailing from the 1950s and completion of a new 20,000 square foot new facility with banquet and meeting rooms brings the project to conclusion. A restaurant site will be prepared as part of Phase 3, with Boyd Development Corp. of Orlando taking over that project down the road.
"When we put together the 2014 Venetian Gardens master plan, I thought, man, this is going to take 20 years to do," said Minner.
But roughly five years later, the end is in sight. And Minner is particularly proud that no taxes were increased to pay for the development.
The city used cash reserves, built a capital improvement "war chest," and used the proceeds from the 2017 sale of its fiber-optic utility for a pay-as-you-go project.
"I think people are really excited about how we financed it -- making it affordable, not raising taxes or user fees," Minner said. "I think people are really proud of that. I am."
Since its start in the late 1930s, when Venetian Gardens was launched as a Federal Relief Administration project to put people to work during the Depression and to provide actual gardens for people to grow their own food, the area was a popular gathering place. Then came the lull.
Minner is seeing the area thrive again. He's hoping the refurbishment will spur commercial and community activity in the area.
"It really blends nicely together," he said. "We've received a lot of compliments, folks are down there, there's a lot more boaters down there, more volleyball going on. It's really received a lot of acclaim from the community."