Picture the 226-foot-tall Florida Citrus Tower in Clermont turned into a giant Muslim Mosque, where an Islamic call to worship would be broadcast from its speakers across the countryside.
It’s hard to imagine, but not for longtime resident Greg Homan, who wants to sell the iconic tourist attraction to the city for $2.5 million. Although he’s considered putting the tower on the market officially, the thought of unknown private buyers makes him nervous.
“I’ve always said all along that Clermont, or the Chamber (of Commerce), or something along those lines, should be the next owners of the tower,” Homan said, fearing a private owner might let the tower fall into disrepair.
“The other thing I thought of is that if I found a worthy private investor of the tower, and they turned around and sold it to a Muslim mosque, and they did a call to worship off the top of it a couple of times a day … I’m just throwing (out) an example and not trying to spook you, but it’s important for the city that you control it,” he told city council members at a workshop this week.
The tower was built in 1956 to allow visitors to observe the miles of Central Florida orange groves before they turned into rooftops. At more than 500 feet above sea level, it is the highest observation point in the state.
The tower was one of several attractions that tourists went out of their way to visit before Walt Disney ever considered building a theme park in Orlando. Other old-time attractions still operating today include Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, Gatorland in Orlando, Sarasota Jungle Gardens in Sarasota, Monkey Jungle and Parrot Jungle in Miami, Marineland in St. Augustine, Cypress Gardens (now Legoland) in Winter Haven, Silver Springs in Ocala and Weeki Wachee Springs in Spring Hill.
Homan said he won a scholarship to then-Lake Sumter Community College based on a picture he drew of the tower while attending Clermont High School. In 1995, he purchased the tower and, since then, it’s brought him both work, profit and the satisfaction of knowing that he’s kept the structure in good condit ion.
Now, at age 58, Homan said he’s ready to sell but doesn’t want just anyone purchasing the tower.
“It’s been a good ride, but I’ve reached my limit and wherewithal, financially, age-wise and mentally, regarding what I can do with it,” Homan said. “I need someone to take it to the next level and in my opinion, the city of Clermont is the only worthy buyer. I know I’m probably shooting myself in the foot for saying that, but, in my heart, I feel it’s true.”
Homan said he and his wife, Suzie, purchased the tower for $750,000 in 1995 in order to nurse it back to health. He said the previous owners did not maintain the tower. A roof replacement, extensive cleaning, renovations, paint and other things cost him an additional $1 million.
The tower comes with 11,000 square feet of office space, a 1,000-square-foot kitchen and an elevator to the observation decks, Homan said. He also disclosed he pays about $6,000 in taxes on the property each year.
According to Homan, the tower cannot be torn down because of agreements with companies that have placed antennas on the top of it.
Mayor Hal Turville, a lifelong resident of Clermont, questioned the tower’s profitability and whether it was the city’s place to take on the task of running a business.
Mayor Pro Tem Keith Mullins said he would like to hear what people in the area had to say about the issue.
“I think I’d rather see it in quasi-government hands,” he said.
City Manager Darren Gray and Councilman Tim Bates were worried about the cost.
“I agree with Greg that the Citrus Tower is a landmark for us,” Gray said. “But I just look at finances and how there are other needs the community wants, and other needs out there, and do we have the funding to actually purchase this?” Gray asked. “… I’m not saying we can’t work with other groups.”
At the end of the workshop, the consensus among council members — since no votes can be taken at workshops — was to advance the issue to a future council meeting, where council members, with public input, can discuss whether or not to purchase.