Winter Park looks underground for biz stimulus

Entrepreneurs looking for a reason to open in Winter Park may find it in their sewer bill.

Entrepreneurs looking for a reason to open in Winter Park may find it in their sewer bill.

Tim Freed

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Winter Park’s latest effort to attract new businesses to the city’s major corridors is going underground – all the way down to the sewer pipes.

The City Commission took a step toward attracting new businesses to West Fairbanks Avenue on Monday as they passed a water/sewer impact fee deferral program on first reading, hoping to breathe life into one of the city’s major thoroughfares.

Businesses under the new temporary program would pay the first 20 percent of the impact fees — costs that help pay for stronger water pumps and larger treatment facilities — and have the next 24 months to pay the remaining 80 percent. Any interested businesses would have to apply by Aug. 1, 2015.

“[We’re] looking at encouraging redevelopment and encouraging people to move off a septic system [and] onto sewer and water,” said Planning and Community Development Director Dori Stone. “We understand that there’s always an expense to that and we’re trying to get that area of our community to be proactive and move up.”

Developments are already lining up to take advantage of the program, Stone said. The incentive would help existing businesses along Fairbanks Avenue as well, City Manager Randy Knight said.

“It’s also intended for those businesses along there today that are struggling to come up with the impact fee,” Knight said.

More redevelopment could mean more much-needed jobs.

An economic development report presented at a City Commission work session last September showed that the city continues to struggle to regain jobs and lower the unemployment rate. As of August 2012, 7.4 percent of Winter Park residents were unemployed – just 1.7 percent lower than the 9.1 percent unemployment rate peaking in late 2009.

The number of residents living below the poverty line also spiked by 4 percent during the recession, topping off at 12.5 percent of the city population.

The proposed impact fee deferral program comes almost two weeks after City Commissioners made another bid for economic development, passing a change to the land development code allowing for more planned developments – larger projects commonly made up of mixed uses.

The change was recommended by consultant Sylvia Vargas, who believed it would open the door for more businesses and give a boost to the local economy.

But an opportunity to boost the economy clashed with preservation at the June 9 City Commission meeting as Winter Park residents voiced their desire to maintain the village character of the city.

“You five hold something very special in your hands,” said Frank Anderson, one of more than 20 residents who addressed the City Commission. “Tonight we decide whether we embark as a community on a path that will open up an aperture for these [planned developments].”

“If we go in that direction, it takes away some of the safeguards that generations of leaders in this city have put in place for a reason … to protect the nature of our community.”

The conflict between economic progress and preserving the city’s character continues to be an ongoing struggle, Mayor Ken Bradley said.

“It’s always a balance,” Bradley said.

“The fact is we have a 9-square-mile property that is our city of Winter Park to balance. To keep it the way it was 125 years ago is good, but there’s a lot of things that happened 125 years ago that I don’t want to go back to … When you talk about preservation, what do you want to preserve?”

The impact fee deferral program will go for final approval before Winter Park City Commissioners at a meeting next month.