In December, I had the pleasure to accompany the Main Street Winter Haven board of directors on a site visit to Winter Garden. For those of you who have never been to Winter Garden, it is a city very similar to Winter Haven, that has seen a tremendous amount of change over the last two decades. They have a population of around 40,000 (compared to Winter Haven's population of 38,038 within the City limits).
We had an opportunity to meet with the City Manager, the director of their heritage foundation and take a tour of one their newest additions, the Plant Street Market and Crooked Can Brewing Company. Suffice it to say it took many, many steps (and years) to make downtown Winter Garden what it is today (i.e. from almost 80% vacant and rundown to bursting at the seams with 100,000 visitors a month). Read the post to see photos of community and the lessons learned from this site visit.
Our first stop on our visit to downtown Winter Garden was to their City Hall. Their City Hall was recently redone to align with the refreshed downtown. To give a bit of background on the city, the revitalization process started over 20 years ago when the West Orange Trail was proposed to come through downtown Winter Garden. At that time 75% of Winter Garden was blighted and 80% of downtown space was unoccupied, according to the City Manager Mike Bollhoefer. There was resistance from some to the trail coming through the downtown but the project pushed forward. Just building the trail didn't make the difference, Mike noted. It was the additional things that the City did in conjunction with the trail - landscaping, brick paving, etc. Today a MILLION people use this segment of the West Orange Trail on an annual basis. The land along the trail has almost tripled in value. A recent new development use it's location along the trail as their main marketing line - "The West Orange Trail is our main street."
The trail was the spark, but it took additional public investment to ignite private investment The first step was to define the vision and the type of City they wanted to become. Because of that process they have been able to use it as the litmus test in making decisions on investments. It's probably best described on their website as progressive thinking, sound financial planning and a steadfast adherence to his long-term vision which is to attract young families, inspired entrepreneurs and accomplished businesses who are attracted to the quality of life that Winter Garden now offers with its bike and walking trails, fresh local food, outdoor events, family atmosphere and healthy living. The City used creative methods of CRA, utility funds, bank loans, bonds and grants to invest in the downtown core. These investments increased property values which increased collection and monies available in the CRA. (I am probably oversimplifying this from what we learned on the quick visit, but the City Manager's point was - get creative and you can get it done.)
In their experience the order of development went a little like this --> Trail --> Public Investment --> Private investment with first restaurants, then offices, then retail. They aren't exactly where they want to be yet but they feel like the entrepreneur environment has really picked up in the last few years.
Now over the course of the years (and especially in recent years) several other factors have increased the population growth in Winter Garden including a Florida Hospital site and the opening of 429. This increased access for Winter Garden to be more accessible to the Orlando commuter.
The City also purchased the historic theater in their downtown and is in an agreement with the Heritage Foundation to run the theater. It has been renovated and the heritage foundation has activated the theater almost 365 days a year with a range of activities from live theater to movies to private events. While we were visiting they were showing Miracle on 34th Street for several weeks.
One of the most popular features in Winter Garden is the Farmer's Market, built in 2010 for $1.2 million. Every Saturday they attract 3,000+ visitors and because its such a good venue, under cover, they attract many of Central Florida's top vendors. In their survey of new residents, the Farmer's Market is the top reason people move to the area (probably because it is what originally exposed the person to the area if I had to guess). In conjunction with the farmer's market the city is working on a 30-acre permaculture farm that will be run by a private person who will split the profits with the City. (I had to Google what that was, apparently I need to up my hipster cred, but a permaculture uses organic gardening and farming practices but it goes beyond these practices by bringing production of food closer to consumers and the consumer’s wastes back into the cycle. It also reduces the energy wasted in transporting the foods by producing the foods where the people are.
They also use this covered space for micro-events such as a jazz concert. During the week many people use the covered area to eat lunch.
The city also built a splash pad in the downtown with shade structures. They kept the splash pad simplistic and they recommend that's the way to go. Bells and whistles in terms of water guns or anything else just require more maintenance, and frankly, they've found kids just want to run through water. This splash pad cost $250K.
One of the most popular new additions to the downtown is the Plant Street Market which houses the Crooked Can Brewing Company. This is a very cool combo of brewery and business incubator all in one. The land used to be a run-down apartment building. The City worked with the entrepreneur/brewer to transform the property. Through grant funds for streetscaping, tree-triming etc on the land the City invested in the public portion of the property as the form of incentive. for redevelopment The result is not only breathtaking, it's incredibly popular. They are already looking at how to improve parking (currently a dirt lot). The day we were there (a Wednesday at 2) there were numerous groups of cyclists taking a break and grabbing a brew. One other thing I loved to see around the downtown was the cross promotion being done between businesses. At the bike shop there was a Crooked Can Brewing Company bike with a small pallet of beer cans on the back. At the brewery there is a bike with info on the bike shop. Photos of the brewery, the business incubator and other places we visited on the day are below.