The city of Apopka has seen a number of mixed-use development projects emerge in recent years with promises to build out millions upon millions of commercial square footage in walkable, pedestrian-friendly spaces.
But as new homes continue to rise, ushering in more and more residents, the restaurants and retailers aren’t arriving as quickly as some city officials would like. Many locals, commissioners say, go elsewhere to dine and shop.
“We need someone to concentrate on how we want to grow,” Commissioner Diane Velazquez said at the Jan. 18 meeting. “We build here, we build there, we have mixed-use here and warehouses there, but we are not getting any businesses.”
As for the city’s downtown: “It has just kind of stagnated,” she said.
A short time later, Velasquez joined the majority of her peers in voting to create an economic development division within the city.
One of the roles of the department — to be led by an economic development director hired by the commission at a later date — would be to work with developers to identify and attract businesses.
“We make this investment and all of us benefit,” said commissioner Kyle Becker, who recommended the new position. “I don’t see how our residents or the development community would attack us for this initiative. It’s all a benefit to the city and taxpayers.”
But a 3-2 commission vote on Jan. 18 signified that not everyone agrees. Mayor Bryan Nelson and Commissioner Alexander Smith voted against the new city department that’s expected to cost $200,000 a year to operate. The first year would be paid for using Covid-19 state and local recovery funds.
The commission will have to iron out details — such as the economic development director’s job description and salary — at a future meeting before the city seeks out candidates.
Nelson said the city has other needs to address, suggesting the commission use that money to replace aging infrastructure.
“We just had to take a fire tower out of service,” he said. “If we want to spend $200,000, I would suggest that the fire tower is a much better use of that money.”
Smith said he’d prefer the position to be a part-time role, noting that many development projects are currently moving forward without it.
“I feel that a part-time economic director would be beneficial to our city,” Smith said.
Becker used a roughly thirty-minute presentation to push the benefits of a new full-time position, saying “we have a full-time need.”
He said city residents have to travel to other municipalities in the Orlando area, such as Mount Dora or Sanford, to enjoy walkable shopping and eating destinations.
He said Apopka is the largest city in the area without an economic development department.
And in speaking to the need for the program, Becker gave examples of long-vacant land and not-yet-developed mixed-use projects.
Rock Springs Plaza, which at one time was anchored by an Albertson’s grocery store, has sat dormant for ten years, Becker said.
Property at the corner of Rock Springs and Lester Avenue has been vacant for four years, he said.
Two hotels on the east side of the city —a Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express — have outparcel land available for restaurants, Becker said.
While the Apopka City Center project has development activity underway near the intersection of U.S. 441 and S.R. 436, Becker said it’s been in the works for six years and still doesn’t have any walkable amenities.
Taurus Investment Holdings was chosen by the city as the master developer for the City Center project in 2016. A 118-room Hilton Garden Inn Apopka opened on the site in 2020.
Taurus sold off a 5.4-acre section in November of 2021 to TCII Capital Group for $1.3 million. The Aventura-based company has started construction on a 42,000-square-foot Winn-Dixie grocery store.
Jason Glaser, the chief operating officer with TCII, told GrowthSpotter that the Winn-Dixie is expected to open in the third quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, Taurus is securing final permits for a 12,500-square-foot food hall with nine restaurant tenants and a brewery at City Center.
Recently, a judge ruled that Wendover Housing would be allowed to build affordable housing units within the City Center parameters after the city unsuccessfully attempted to quash the concept.
Becker also pointed out other large-scale mixed-use projects in the development pipeline that he believes could benefit from the new staff position.
The Floridian Town Center, led by Benge Development, is poised to bring 600 housing units and 200,000 square feet of commercial space to the northwest corner of state roads 429 and 441.
The Ridge at Lake Bronson calls for the construction of 683 residential homes, 678 apartments, 350,000 square feet of commercial/office space, and 1.5 million square feet of industrial space. Lennar Homes, Toll Brothers, and commercial developer McCraney Property Company have latched on to the project destined for 366 acres along Boy Scout Road.
Evans Properties is working to bring the city its largest mixed-use project ever with 2,931 multifamily residential units, 1.1 million square feet of non-residential space, and up to 1.8 million square feet of industrial space. Kelly Park Crossings will go on Kelly Park Road between Golden Gem Road and S.R. 429.
Across all of these projects, there are more than six million square feet of vacant non-residential property ready for businesses, Becker said.
He said the economic development director would help shape these projects.
“It’s a topic that I think is important for the progress of our city,” Becker said, later adding that as Orange County’s second-largest city, “We need to be relevant too. ...We’ve got to spend a little to get more in return. It’s a prudent investment that will help a lot of things in the city.”
Commissioner Nick Nesta said he expects it to take some time before the economic development director is brought on board.
“This may not be something we get in place until May or June,” he said. “We want the right person in the right seat. We don’t want to rush this just because we are excited about it. I want to make sure it’s right so we are creating success.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story has been updated to clarify that TCII Capital Group is developing the Winn-Dixie within the City Center project.
Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at (407)-800-1161 or dwyatt@GrowthSpotter.com, or tweet me at @DustinWyattGS. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn