Editor’s Note: This is the 20th in a series of 24 articles published by The Apopka Voice in 2017 that were among the most noteworthy. We will post all of them from December 26th and December 31st. Then on Monday, January 1st we will poll our readers and let them decide which is Apopka's biggest story of 2017.
First published December 13th
On Tuesday morning, Mayor Joe Kilsheimer spoke for a little under 30 minutes about the past, present, and future of Apopka. The State of the City Address, a 4,144-word speech written by Kilsheimer, looked back at 2017, forward to 2018, and beyond.
It was Kilsheimer's second State of the City Address, held at the Highland Manor, and he opened with a familiar theme.
"I can state without reservation or hesitation that this past year, 2017, was a transformational year for the City of Apopka," Kilsheimer said. "We started some things that are going to shape our community for many years to come and we continue working to set ourselves up for success."
Kilsheimer spoke on a range of subjects including Hurricane Irma, economic development, the City Center, road improvements, new fire stations, police accreditation, building development, the Wastewater Treatment Facility, jobs, grants, schools, community redevelopment, Florida Hospital old and new, and a long-awaited splash pad.
Kilsheimer outlined the core of Apopka's accomplishments and his vision for the future in a section he called "The Pillars of Apopka's Transformation". He listed Florida Hospital Apopka as the primary catalyst.
"First and foremost is the opening of the new Florida Hospital. This $200 million investment in Apopka, which opens officially for business tomorrow, (Wednesday morning at 7 am) will revolutionize the perception and reputation of our city. From a healthcare perspective, Apopka is now able to tell people our community provides access to world-class, state-of-the-art medical care."
He also considers Florida Hospital Apopka to be the springboard of an economic renaissance in Apopka that stretches beyond job creation.
"We can already see that the new Florida Hospital Apopka is creating 300 direct jobs and – moreover – that the hospital ultimately will prove to be an economic development magnet that will generate many more jobs in the surrounding area called the eastshore district for our community. In short, we have only begun to see the kind of positive changes the new hospital will bring, and it will transform our city for the better."
His second pillar was the City Center, which is poised to make tangible progress in 2018.
"As many of you know, the City’s development partner Taurus Southern Investments announced in April of 2017 that it had signed a preliminary agreement to build a Hilton Garden Inn Hotel within the City Center project," said Kilsheimer. "And in June of 2017, Taurus signed a long-term lease with Dubsdread Catering for the preservation of Highland Manor on the property and linking it to the new hotel."
Kilsheimer also announced that Taurus scheduled the closing date for the purchase of the property for the hotel for the first of the year, and remains on track to begin construction of the hotel in the first quarter of 2018. It will also mark the beginning of improvements to SR 436, US HIghway 441, and several connecting roads to the City Center.
"Nearly simultaneously with the construction of the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel, work will begin on a series of road improvements in and around the intersection of US Highway 441 and State Road 436," he said.
Among the improvements that have been approved by the Florida Department of Transportation:
"Taken together, the hotel and the road improvements alone will represent a new capital investment of more than $23 million in downtown Apopka, the first significant investment in downtown Apopka in more than a decade," Kilsheimer said.
The Wekiva Parkway is the third pillar of transformation according to Kilsheimer.
"In July of 2017, we saw the opening of the first two legs of the parkway, sections 1a and 1b. In March, we will see the opening of sections 2a, 2b and 2c. This will extend the Wekiva Parkway to the edge of Mount Dora and provide a direct connection to State Road 46. Now, we all know that the full completion of the Wekiva Parkway, including a new bridge over the Wekiva River, is scheduled for 2021, but think about that for a moment... a beltway around Central Florida’s metro region, which has been nearly 30 years in the making, is now just three years away."
In the second half of the address, Kilsheimer shifted his attention to public safety, and praised the Apopka Fire and Police Departments for their accomplishments in 2017.
"In the past two weeks, the City of Apopka has opened not just one, but two new fire stations, the first fire stations to be opened by the city in more than two decades. Both Station#5 on the north side and Station #6 on the south side opened in temporary quarters. A permanent new Station #5 will open off Jason Dwelley Parkway in February, and a permanent new station #6 will open in the years ahead, but what I can tell you is that both of these stations already are responding to emergencies with dramatically shorter response times than what we were experiencing just a couple weeks ago. Fire Chief Chuck Carnesale tells me that Station #5 responded to a medical emergency in Rock Springs Ridge over the weekend and reached the scene in three and a half minutes. Previously, it would have taken our emergency crews 6-8 minutes to respond from Station #2 on Welch Road. The Apopka Fire Department has responded to more than 8,100 emergency calls so far this year, a 23 percent increase in calls for service from this time a year ago."
"At the Apopka Police Department – under the leadership of Chief Mike McKinley, I am also proud to say that our police department in November achieved its goal of winning accreditation from the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation. This was a 10-year goal for the APD and our team of dedicated police officers and support staff worked tirelessly to win accreditation in only a year and a half."
Kilsheimer talked about economic and community development in the latter stages of his address, and featured some impressive numbers.
"In the 2016 budget year, our Building Department staff issued 6,459 building permits, a 35.9 percent increase over the previous year. the value of those construction projects exceeded $294 million in the past budget year, a 37 percent increase over the previous year, and so far this year – from January to November – the City of Apopka has issued certificates of occupancy for 554 single-family homes. In just 11 months, we have issued 53 percent more c.o.’s than we did in all 2016, when the number was 360... and by the way, the Building Department staff has handled all of the increased requests for service with the same level of staffing we had four years ago. Our Planning Department is helping us set Apopka up for success. We completed the update to our Community Redevelopment Plan in June of 2017, and we also completed the new form-based code for the Kelly Park interchange in June of 2017. With both of these plans in place, we are now able to allow projects in both of these places to begin moving forward. Our big project in planning is the complete re-write of the City of Apopka’s land development code. As a city, the last time we updated the land development code was in 1993. The City’s planning staff will bring the updated code to city council for review and approval sometime in the first quarter of 2018. This will make our land development code easier to read and easier for businesses and residents to use."
"At the Public Services Department, the staff is working through a number of projects to help us address the challenges of our growing community," said Kilsheimer. "Chief among those projects is the ongoing construction of the City’s new wastewater treatment plant. At a cost of $60 million, this is the largest capital expansion project ever undertaken by the City of Apopka, and it is vitally needed to handle both our obligations to environmental protection and to meet the additional capacity that is being brought about by our growth. I am pleased to report that the construction of the wastewater plant expansion is both on time and within budget, and is on track to open phase 1 in September 2018."
"Our Grants Manager Dr. Shakenya Jackson has had a banner year in obtaining grants for the City of Apopka and its programs," he said. "The City also secured two $30,000 grants to purchase new playground equipment at Alonzo Williams Park and Kit Land Nelson Park, as well as a $120,000 grant to construct paved recreational trails at Kit Land Nelson Park. Dr. Jackson also played a pivotal role in the City’s "Apopka begins and ends with A" program’s collaboration with OCPS Foundation to secure the 21st century community learning centers grant totaling almost $780,000 which funds academic afterschool programs at Phillis Wheatley and Zellwood Elementary Schools."
Kilsheimer referenced a common them at City Council meetings - general fund reserves.
"I can state without hesitation that the City’s financial position is strong. We recently began the 2017 fiscal year with unrestricted general fund reserves of $8.6 million, or 20 percent of our general fund budget. What is important to keep in mind is that, through some very hard work by both our staff and our City Council, we have managed to fund the priorities of the city – including the personnel and equipment needed to operate two new fire stations – without raising the property tax rate. We have been fiscally responsible while being responsive to the needs of the city, and as a result, our financial position is strong."
"Florida Hospital announced last year that their plans include a senior living component as well as healthcare services. Last week,Florida Hospital announced that they have broadened their original vision and are exploring additional uses for the property that will provide a more diverse, mixed-use and active development plan. Florida Hospital has partnered with the Ustler Group of companies on a master planning effort to ensure that it achieves its goals. I have proposed working together to master plan a recreation facility on city-owned land that would serve both residents of the new project and city residents as well.
"The next project coming up is the beginning of an effort to revitalize the western side of downtown Apopka... specifically, I am referring to the areas along Station Street, Central Avenue and Fifth and Sixth Streets. These areas make up the core of what is traditionally known as downtown Apopka and they are what I believe make up some of our greatest opportunities for successful redevelopment. Through our community redevelopment agency, the City of Apopka has already taken the first step. We recently closed on the purchase of the fifth-street parking lot that lies behind the businesses on Main Street. Previously, this parking lot was partially owned by the city and partially owned by some of the surrounding businesses. This hybrid type of ownership made it very hard for the city to take any steps to maintain the parking lot. As long as it remained partially in private hands, we could not justify spending taxpayer money on maintenance. Now, fully owned by the city, the parking lot can become the first step toward the revitalization of this area. The plan is to repave and landscape the parking lot – along with burying the overhead utility wires. This project will make the parking lot a safer, more attractive place for the customers of our Main Street and Central Avenue businesses, and should help them grow their clientele. Along with the re-paving of the Fifth Street parking lot, the next opportunity to spur the re-development of the west side of downtown Apopka will be a project we’re calling the Sixth Street promenade. our plan is to take the existing Sixth Street and put it on a “road diet”. By narrowing portions of the road, and introducing some small curves, we can gain enough right-of-way to add a multi-modal trail along one side of Sixth Street. This will link the west side of downtown Apopka not only to the West Orange Trail, but to our city center project, making it easier for cyclists and pedestrians to reach both the east and west sides of downtown Apopka."
"We are continuing to pursue our vision of creating an environment in which an eco-tourism industry can flourish, thanks to the ongoing revival of Lake Apopka. In recent months, our vision has expanded, and we have broadened our discussions to include the St. John's River Water Management District as well as the University of Florida and the Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences, also known as IFAS, which operates the research station off Binion Road in South Apopka. Our discussions with the water management district have led to this point: the district has committed to relocate its Central Florida service center to Apopka in 2021, when the lease on its current rented office space expires. and we have had a number of discussions with the University of Florida regarding how the City of Apopka can help IFAS grow and expand its research mission. All of these discussions are taking place in light of our effort to create conditions where private partners would be led to make an investment into eco-tourism facilities that would bring more jobs to Apopka. This is a very exciting time for Apopka, and we have so much to look forward to. What we imagine today and accomplish tomorrow will be enjoyed by future generations."