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Improvements made to the Florida Central Railroad tracks from Umatilla to Orlando.
Improvements made to the Florida Central Railroad tracks from Umatilla to Orlando.

Lake County's Florida Central Railroad train tracks that hadn't seen more than an occasional locomotive in years have undergone a makeover, readying them for use by freight trains, commuter trains, pleasure trains, even a historic steam engine.

But the economic impact of the rehab is likely to move beyond a Saturday train ride to the pumpkin patch with the kids. Economic development is already showing interest in riding the rails.

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The recent rehab is generating interest from industrial developers, economic development officials say.

"They absolutely have been looking at properties along the rail," said Robert Chandler, director of economic growth for Lake County. "There is one project right now where somebody wants to do a big distribution center with multiple 100,000s of square feet. They couldn't afford rail in Orange County. We are working on a couple of pieces with them right now."

Chandler says the company is looking for between 50 and 100 acres on a rail line. There is not any detailed information about the company looking for the land. Information is cloaked by the state economic officials. However, the developer of a proposed General Motors parts distribution center was recently seeking to build a similar-sounding distribution center off State Road 429 in Ocoee, GrowthSpotter reported in May. After attracting negative attention from nearby Winter Garden, the project seems to have gone underground.

"I have a lot of confidence in this being able to help us attract a different kind of business," said Chandler of the rail improvements.

There are several events that are creating demand for more rail lines and land adjacent to them, Chandler said.

"The amount of vacant land and buildings along rail has been decreasing because of rails-to-trails, and the supply-side dynamic on demand is seeing a return to rail just because of the efficiency," Chandler said.

Having functional railroad tracks gives Lake County another tool to attract development.

"There are a couple of different ways to be successful (in economic development)," said Chandler. "You can incentivize development and put dollars in the deal and try to compete that way. We don't have the budget. Or you can make a product better and improve delivery systems. This is something that gives us another asset that our competitors don't have."

Putting together the rail rehab project was a model in cooperation. Contributors to the $18.4 million project include: the Florida Central Railroad, which operates the tracks, FDOT, Lake-Sumter MPO, MetroPlan Orlando, Lake County, Orange County, the City of Umatilla, the City of Eustis, the City of Tavares, the City of Mount Dora, the City of Apopka, the City of Orlando, the City of Winter Garden, and the City of Ocoee.

The Florida Central Railroad tracks stretch from Umatilla, down to Tavares where one spur heads east to Mount Dora and the other one goes southeast around Lake Dora and into Orange County to Orlando, where it can connect with the rest of the state's rail system. Another spur runs from Toronto down to Winter Garden. Another short spur in Orlando goes to the Silver Star industrial park.

The most likely users of the track in the short term will be freight companies, but planners could foresee the possibility of a passenger train to Orlando from Lake County in the future.

The project included 20 miles of smoother track from Apopka to Eustis and more than 27,000 new crossties and 76 improved road crossings from Orlando to Umatilla, the Orlando Sentinel reported. The track itself was modernized to a continuous welded track that takes some of the clackity clack out of the trip.

tburney@growthspotter.com or 407-420 6261

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