The goal of a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) is for a municipality to aggressively apply county resources to a series of public programs which seek to induce or grow the flow of private capital into the area. The funding, required by Florida Statutes, is meant to address a “substantial number of deteriorating structures and blight”. The state defines blight as bad traffic management, insufficient roadway networks, and infrastructure deficiencies such as streetlighting, sanitary sewer, stormwater drainage, vacated properties, and high-crime areas.
Being a part-time citizen historian, I can tell you downtown areas suffered nationwide when big box stores came on the scene. They caused many local emporiums and small businesses to go bankrupt. Today, with so much home delivery of goods and services, we are seeing even these shopping centers become blighted. Best practices in the 2020s include retrofitting inner-city shopping centers into much-needed multi-family housing or renovated government buildings.
Knowing I would be tasked with making the motion to approve or deny a ten-year extension of the Apopka CRA led me to a month-long period of personal research on the subject. I’m still researching thriving small-city downtowns and will be touring more cities across the state.
I have four cities in District 2: Ocoee, Apopka, Eatonville, and Orlando. Plus, I’m trying to create a main street for Lockhart. I have a passion for improving downtown areas. I believe character main streets are pivotal for economic vitality, private sector redevelopment, quality of life, and community pride.
I researched the original CRA documents from Apopka, Ocoee, and Winter Garden. Unfortunately, the 1994 Apopka document, while aspirational, lacks a plan, vision, or detail. I stand by President Reagan's quote, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.
Fortunately, in 2017, the City of Apopka created a CRA plan. This plan has many aspects and details, which, if followed, would result in a successful rebirth of downtown Apopka. One positive development from the written plan has been the repaving of the 6th Street parking lot. Most of us have enjoyed the new establishments and are looking forward to the new murals. I’m also hearing city staff speak of going out for procurement for a new trail and upgraded sidewalks to connect the downtown area to the West Orange Trail. This will be a positive development once completed.
The 2017 plan lists some other positive strategies, such as improved infrastructure – directional signage, wayfinding features, and upgraded streetscape. The plan recommends the city administration develop an awards program that matches citizen contributions for beautification. Economic development efforts could go a long way to realizing private sector investment.
Business support from the Apopka Chamber could lead to new businesses located in previously residentially zoned areas. For our restaurants to thrive, we need more employees in the area. Finally, a historical property recognition program headed up by the Apopka Historical Society could bring more tourism and interest downtown.
Apopka currently enjoys six historical markers. They include Kelly Park, Lovell’s Landing, Oldest Masonic Lodge, Piedmont Community, Episcopal Church, and Apopka School House. I remember attending most of these dedications. A few more downtown markers could create the basis for a walking tour. I have written a Driving Tour of the downtown area, which is available at the Library, Canon Coffee, and my office. However, a walking tour on new sidewalks, improved streetscapes with wayfinding signage, new markers, and murals would be a great start toward preserving the CRA.
I can even think of a few more places for markers, like Ryan Lumber, the previous location of Consumer Veneer & Lumber, 1918 Tornado, St. Paul’s AME Church, Meads Bottom, the home of Mayor John Land, etc. If asked, I might even curate one. I have extensive experience organizing historical exhibits in schools and communities. All it takes is citizens, non-profits, and businesses contributing funding.
Lastly, we need a street-by-street approach to improving the area and attracting buyers to purchase empty parcels. The number of vacant parcels has increased over the past thirty years. This is not a good trend. It needs to be reversed. I have several programs offered through the District 2 office, Corridor Chiefs and Corridor of the Year. I’m happy to train volunteers for this effort to clean up roadways in the CRA. We have seen the success of clean-ups leading to new development, new businesses, and new opportunity.
Finally, I am not oblivious to all the rancor and hostility currently circulating through Apopka. It pains me to see folks spending so much time and energy fighting one another. There is a solution. Get busy doing something positive. I believe, together, we could positively improve the trajectory of the area and extend ten more years of county funding for downtown Apopka.
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