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Purchasing Camp Wewa: Is it a new day in Apopka?

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Opinion

The Friday Editorial

By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice

"Birds flying high, you know how I feel

Sun in the sky, you know how I feel

Breeze driftin' on by, you know how I feel

It's a new dawn

It's a new day

It's a new life for me, yeah

It's a new dawn

It's a new day

It's a new life for me

And I'm feeling good"

--I'm Feeling Good - Nina Simone

Ask anyone in Apopka, and they probably have a story associated with Camp Wewa. It's been a part of the fabric of Apopka for over 70 years, and I applaud the City Council for treating it as an investment into the community's future.

Despite a pandemic, budget constraints, and no clear pathway to purchase, you persevered and are on a path to making this a part of the eco-tourism package so vital to the Apopka brand.

Take a look at the energy, creativity, and optimism displayed at the special city council meeting on February 3rd...

“Three weeks ago, I got a call from the YMCA about this property,” said Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson. “It was basically a courtesy call to let us know they were going to sell the property to a developer and thought I would want to know. I just said wow. Having been there I knew how amazing this property was. I asked them to give us a couple of weeks to do our due diligence and maybe we can come up with a plan to purchase.”

“You have about $800,000 in impact fees that you can use,” said City Administrator Edward Bass. “You can put up the other properties for sale (including the Sandpiper property valued at $1.2 million). The City is also in the process of applying for a grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, but Bass cautioned about its timing. “We won’t know about the grant,” said Bass. “It takes some time for that to come back. What we could do is use some of the other parcels coming in as income, and then you also front some for reserves and reimburse yourselves from the sale.”

“I’d love to have summer camp up and running,” added Nelson.

“When you think about brand alignment with Camp Wewa and the City of Apopka, I don’t think there’s much argument there," said Commissioner Kyle Becker. "It goes together because we have such a focus on eco-tourism. The springs, Lake Apopka, the Wildlife Drive… all these things kind of play together."

“It goes back to ‘what is our brand?’ Commissioner Doug Bankson said. "Lake Apopka used to be one of the best fishing lakes nationwide, and then we lost that, but now it’s coming back. The trend is greenspace, ecology… you have the birding… tie this together and it’s something that can’t be reproduced. You’ve heard me harp on (budget) reserves. But this is the reason why. It puts us in a position to act. I think this is a tremendous opportunity. And if we do this right, we’re going to be the number one destination for green tourism.”

I applaud the effort, the urgency of the moment, the creativity to find the assets to make it work, and the vision for the future. I only have one question... Can this type of effort, urgency, creativity, and vision show up again in the budget for the fiscal year 2021-22 (FY-22)?

Nelson, in a way, answered that question near the end of the meeting.

“Three years ago, we couldn’t have done this. But because of the financial shape we are in, we can use reserves, or borrow the money, we’ve got ways of doing it because of the shape we’re in.”

“We’re in uncharted territories,” said Bass. This is new to us. This is something we have an opportunity to take on and I think the key is going to be to look for all the grant opportunities available, partnering, and working with the Chamber. We can all work together.”

That's a refreshing take on the state of Apopka. For a while now, it seemed as though the City Council and its administrator were playing defense against additional purchases and acquisitions rather than working together to make things happen. In my five years as managing editor of The Apopka Voice, I've reported on two mayors, two city administrators, eight commissioners, several finance directors, and department heads. And in those five years, these officials spent days and hours putting together five budgets. Their efforts are to be commended, but my takeaway is this - there were a lot of blood, sweat, and tears put forth, but at the end of the day, it gives the impression you are reacting to the assets and liabilities put in front of you while setting aside vision for the future of this growing city.

But today is a new day in Apopka, and as Bass points out... these are uncharted territories.

The budget process for FY-22 is just around the corner. With this new forward-looking attitude and a completely repaired budget, what should Apopka look at next? Let's take this new attitude out for a spin...

Considering the Camp Wewa purchase almost literally fell in your lap through a courtesy-call, imagine the opportunities that might show up if you took the initiative?

I read an article in The Seminole Source a few weeks ago about the City of Sanford hiring a new Economic Development Director. Sanford, a city of about 59,000, is slightly larger than Apopka with a significantly higher tax base and millage rate, but I was still surprised they didn't consider letting the post go vacant considering the pandemic. Others, including Apopka, have chosen not to take on that expense. However, the City of Sanford plans to keep the position and the department fully funded in 2021.

"The City of Sanford announces the hiring of Dr. Tom Tomerlin as Director of Economic Development," the story reads. "Tomerlin will be responsible for guiding and implementing the City’s economic development strategy. He has experience in a variety of fields including economic development, consulting, and economic analysis.

Tomerlin brings nearly 30 years of experience, including economic development leadership positions for both Seminole County Government and the City of Lake Mary, Florida. Tomerlin was instrumental in recruiting Fortune 500 companies to Lake Mary and advancing strategic initiatives in the community."

I called Sanford, and it turns out Mr. Tomerlin's salary is a little less than $100,000 per year, and the department's budget is a little over $500,000. Sanford landed a person with 30 years of experience, a proven track record, and local knowledge for under $100,000 per year.

In the department's description, they list over 50 accomplishments including several major companies moving to Sanford in 2020 and set 50 new goals for 2021, which includes attracting jobs to the city at 115%-150% of the county's average wage and bringing even more new businesses to town. If they can accomplish half of the expectations listed, that department will easily pay for itself.

In January of 2020, Apopka took a small step towards addressing economic development, when it partnered with the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce to "lead and promote economic development opportunities." It was the first time a partnership of this type had been created.

“The significance of this approved partnership will have an incredibly positive impact on the future of our rapidly-growing community and our membership," said Chamber President Robert Agrusa. "We look forward to working together with the City and our surrounding communities to grow our existing businesses, create and attract new high-wage and highly skilled labor jobs, expand capital investment and increase prosperity to all of Northwest Orange County."

“I applaud the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce for their bold leadership and willingness to offer a unique proposal, which leverages our public and private sectors to streamline our collective efforts, and maximize our resources dedicated to the Apopka area for infrastructure, transportation, and job growth,” said Nelson. “Plus, we are excited to partner with the Apopka Area Chamber as we acknowledge our agriculturally centric roots and redefine the City of Apopka into a city of opportunity, with the promise of a bright and vibrant future.”

The four major economic development objectives that the Chamber will be focused on in 2020 will include the following:

The creation and hosting of a brand-new Economic Development website

The creation of brand-new Economic Development/marketing materials

Serve as the business community lead and partner with City for the Apopka Youth Works summer program

Identify our current Economic Development assets, along with Future Economic Development marketing needs and new asset requirements

This was a modest and inexpensive start to a city's economic development, but it does display the City's acknowledgment that a forward-looking approach to economic development is important. But clearly, this is not enough - especially with the departure of Agrusa and his admirable leadership of the Chamber. To compete with local municipalities, and for Apopka to realize its full potential, it needs an economic development department.

The role of an economic development director is to have a strategic focus. They are pro-active. They study market trends and apply their expert judgment to opportunities and threats facing the local economy. And while the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce is a key component to economic development in Apopka, a department and its director, specifically given the job to analyze and respond to the economic well-being of the community can work with them, and specifically harness the potential of every component in Apopka’s arsenal to keep pace with the tremendous growth it is experiencing.

And while a $500,000 budget may be a bridge too far, it seems plausible that a director with a modest budget would more than pay for itself - even if their primary focus in year one was to make certain Camp Wewa was at a minimum a break-even prospect, get the City Center project back on track and get the word out to central Florida that the City is open for business.

It's a new dawn, it's a new day, and Apopka is feeling good.

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