Transforming its image, there are numerous efforts under way to revitalize the city of Mount Dora in the next five to six years.
Those efforts include the completion of a 25-mile state toll road running through Mount Dora, providing easy access to Orlando. The Wekiva Parkway project is coordinated in conjunction with the construction of the Wekiva Trail, a 15-mile multi-use trail connecting Lake, Seminole and Orange counties.
City officials in collaboration with the county have already begun planning for a Mount Dora regional commercial district, which would be located at Round Lake Road and State Road 46.
The Wekiva Trail “will bring visitors from Seminole and Orange County to downtown, where they will hopefully spend money, and it will enhance the value of residential areas near the vicinity of the trail,” Lake County Commissioner Leslie Campione said.
Community leaders and trail advocates have focused on getting the trail built in conjunction with the parkway, she said.
“Otherwise, it would be out of reach financially for Lake County to take on a project of this magnitude,” according to Campione.
Even so, county officials said the biggest challenge is finding funding sources for the Wekiva Trail project. At the same time, city officials said they aspire to bring Orange County residents to east Lake County for work opportunities, but said they must overcome the notion that the area in just a big bedroom community.
Thirty years ago, the Florida Department of Transportation, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise determined the beltway needed to be completed, said Mary Brooks, public involvement coordinator for Wekiva Parkway.
The $1.7 billion project funded in partnership with the FDOT, the expressway authority and the enterprise would “complete the beltway around metropolitan Orlando,” according to information from the project.
Once the project is completed by 2019, “it is going to make it much easier to get to the parkway and to travel between Seminole, Lake and Orange counties,” Brooks said.
The toll road will begin at “State Road 429/Daniel Webster Western Beltway at the new Connector Road, just north of U.S. Highway 441 in Apoka,” according to details of the project. From there, “it will head north to a systems interchange just south of the Orange County-Lake County line.”
The parkway will include an interchange at State Road 46 near Round Lake Road in Mount Dora. It will then head east and north along the SR 46 corridor in both Lake and Seminole County before turning south to connect with State Road 417.
As a result of the project, there will be more than 3,400 acres of land set aside for conservation.
Part of the work will involve the reconstruction of the U.S. Highway 441/SR 46 interchange in Mount Dora, and the relocation of County Road 46A. Transportation officials said the Parkway would reduce traffic congestion on U.S. 441 and SR 46.
Brooks said it also would reduce vehicle crashes on SR 46.
“Wekiva Parkway will alleviate the traffic on local and state roads and make it much easier and quicker to get to a destination,” she said, emphasizing it will provide connectivity to SR 417 and the I-4 corridors.
It is also expected to create 36,000 jobs, Brooks said.
Project details also specify there will be a “non-tolled option for local trips from the County Road 46A realignment in Lake County to Orange Boulevard in Seminole County.”
Providing hikers, nature enthusiasts and cyclists a connection between Lake, Seminole and Orange counties, the 15-mile trail will “provide a gateway to the shops, restaurants and cultural destinations of the city of Mount Dora,” according to project specifications.
Beginning at Tremain Street, the trail will connect with the Seminole Wekiva Trail near the Wekiva River, according to the Lake-Sumter Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Project Development and Environmental Study.
There are also plans to evaluate a “north/south connection through the Neighborhood Lakes property to the West Orange Trail near Kelly Park.”
Mike Woods, transportation planner with the Lake-Sumter MPO, said a final report on the study phase of the project would be completed at the end of the month.
“We would like the whole thing built within five years,” he said.
The challenge is funding right of way and construction costs, Woods explained.
A large portion of the trail will sit on rights-of-way owned by CSX and the Central Florida Railroad.
“There is an agreement in place with Mount Dora and Lake County with the Central Florida Railroad to purchase the lease from them, and once they purchase the lease, to negotiate with CSX to purchase the land,” Woods said.
In 2011, the Balmoral Group conducted an economic impact study on the proposed trail, citing numerous positive economic development outcomes.
Once the trail is constructed, the group predicted it would bring in between “$3 million and 12.7 million in benefits for businesses and workers along the downtown trail segment” while also creating more than 75 jobs.
Also, along the downtown trail segment, there will be an increase of at least $4.8 million in property values, the study stated.
The group also found that about 57,140 people are expected to use the trail at least one time each year.
“The downtown trail, with its connectivity to existing trails and addition of increased bicyclist traffic, will represent a significant enhancement to the existing Lake County Trail System,” the study found.
Campione said “the economic activity associated with trails of this nature is a proven phenomenon in other places that have similar characteristics as Mount Dora, such as Winter Garden.”
Indeed, Balmoral Group highlighted Winter Garden as a blighted area before its trail was constructed.
Now, the area is “nearly 100 percent storefront occupied,” the study stated.
Even though the trail has received community support, Campione said the challenge is finding funding sources for the projected expected to cost more than $11 million.
“We simply cannot justify spending money on building a trail when we have roads and sidewalks that need to be maintained competing for the same dollars,” she said. “That is why it is so critical that we look for funding opportunities that are outside the box.”
Those opportunities include partnering with agencies, the state, nonprofit organizations and the private sector, Campione said.
Mount Dora Mayor-elect Cathy Hoechst said bicycling has increased in popularity in the city, highlighting the importance of the trail.
“You are seeing more and more people looking at the focus for health and wellness,” she said.
Mount Dora regional commercial district
Currently, there are cow pastures at Round Lake Road and SR 46.
City officials want to change that, bringing in industrial, manufacturing, research and development, institutional and educational facilities and retail to the area, after the Wekiva Parkway is built. Some 900 acres is eyed for an economic zone.
“The concept is that we will create an environment where people will locate businesses that have higher paying jobs,” said Mark Reggentin, planning and development director for Mount Dora. “We don’t want it to be a regional mall. We are shooting for higher, commercial, industrial and office uses.”
Currently an ideal place for families to live, Campione said an employment hub similar to Lake Mary, Maitland and Healthrow, is needed where county residents can find high wage jobs similar to those available in the metro-Orlando region.
Reggentin said an economist has been hired to study the industries that would fit in that area.
“One of the biggest challenges is we have been treated as a bedroom community to the Orlando metro area,” he said. “We are just the place where people come in and sleep at night. We want people coming in from Orange County to jobs in east Lake County. We have a lot to offer in terms of quality of life in Mount Dora.”