CHAMPIONSGATE – Consider it a tale of two cities – or, to be more precise, two communities that are not yet cities, but have ambitions to become one in the future.
Those two communities have a lot in common. Both are in unincorporated areas that cut across Osceola and Polk counties. Both have a mix of residents, commercial properties and recreational options.
But there’s a big different. Right now, ChampionsGate is mainly a resort community that hosts the region’s visitors and business travelers.
Poinciana, on the other hand, has 10 villages with more than 84,000 residents.
ChampionsGate may be slowly building itself up into a city. For Poinciana, any attempt at incorporating into a municipality may be dead on arrival, since the last efforts, just two years ago, crashed and burned.
So where are these two communities headed?
For ChampionsGate, the answer is growth and more development — and plenty of it, said Marc Reicher, the vice president of operations for the resort on ChampionsGate Boulevard.
“If you ask me what we’re doing, I’d say we’re building a town without municipal services,” he said.
Billing itself as “Florida’s premier golf resort community,” the resort now covers 1,500 acres of land. The property is being developed as a joint venture by Apollo Real Estate Advisors of New York and RIDA Development Corporation of Houston.
It’s the home to two 18-hole golf courses, a clubhouse with a golf shop and the Piper’s Grill restaurant, the Omni Orlando Resort, and a shopping plaza that includes a Publix Supermarket, restaurants like Chili’s, and other shops.
It also has a unique tenant: The Green Bag Project, a charitable endeavor that collects food for needy families in the region. The project has grown in size and attracted considerable business support, and has since adopted several area schools, providing meals to the students who go there.
“In whatever little way we can help, ChampionsGate and RIDA are here for the long run, and we’re very proud of Green Bag,” Reicher said. “It’s an incredible entity, and it exposes an incredible need.”
ChampionsGate is also proud to have a project like this headquartered there, he added.
“We have a long history of being involved in civic things and being involved in the community,” he said. “We understand we have to be a part of the fabric of the community. We also have our Education Foundation Golf Tournament. We’re the title sponsor.”
The resort, which has villas and condominiums that people can purchase, has future growth plans, Reicher added. As Reicher noted, RIDA developed both the Omni and the Hilton Orlando, and has become a huge employer in the region.
“Between the Omni Resort and the Hilton, we currently employ over 1,400 people,” he said.
The expansion plans continue. RIDA is going to break ground on a 55,000 square foot conference center in the first quarter of 2012, and move ahead with plans for a new service hotel next to the Chili’s restaurant.
On the Polk County side of ChampionsGate, the firm is going to construct a field for sports activities.
“We’re building ball fields that we will see on the Polk County line for amateur sports,” Reicher said, “to bring more revenue into the community.”
Slowly but surely, he added, ChampionsGate is growing and will have everything: homes, businesses, and recreational opportunities.
“We’re getting there,” he said.
If ChampionsGate is still in the infant stages of a possibly huge growth spurt, Poinciana left that station a while ago. The community of 10 villages experienced a major building boom in the past decade, and that pushed the community’s population past 80,000 – far more than in some neighboring incorporated cities like St. Cloud and Haines City.
Poinciana grew fast enough that the entity that governs it, the Association of Poinciana Villages, commissioned a study by the University of Central Florida on whether it was feasible to incorporate. To make that a reality, area lawmakers would have needed to file legislation to allow the 10 villages to become a city.
But loud protests from some Poinciana residents when lawmakers held a public hearing on the issue killed the incorporation effort.
Wendy Farrell lives in Poinciana, runs a business there, and serves on various local boards. She was a supporter of incorporation, but felt two issues killed it: worries about the possibility of paying higher taxes as a city, and having another layer of government to cope with as a municipality.
“I think it was both of those,” she said. “It was basically people didn’t want to see their taxes increase and people didn’t want another layer of government. But the fact is, us not having that layer of government means we can’t do the things we want to do. You go to Osceola County commission meetings, and St. Cloud representatives are there and Kissimmee representatives are there, but no one from Poinciana is there. So if you’re not there with your bowl, you don’t get anything.”
The incorporation issue came back into the spotlight this month when Solivita, a retirees community on the Polk County side of Poinciana, asked the APV’s board of directors to let the development remove its representative from the board. Solivita has its own homeowners association, and the development makes up Poinciana’s Village 10.
Part of the agreement that the APV board is considering would exclude Solivita from any furutre incorporation discussions. That’s prompted supporters of making Poinciana a city to warn that Solivita could kill any future incorporation efforts altogether.
Farrell noted that Solivita residents provided a strong voice of opposition to the incorporation talks two years ago, so allowing the development to get out of any future incorporation plans actually makes sense, since it removes a huge block of opposition to the whole idea.
“It was a them-versus-us thing, Solivita versus the rest of Poinciana,” she said. “I say if that’s what Solivita wants to do, that’s quite within their rights and they’re quite entitled to do that. If incorporation ever comes back, it needs to be done in a whole different way.”
A good start, she said, would be educating residents on the benefits of becoming a city – including the fact that a city can deliver much needed services that a homeowners association like APV simply can’t provide. She noted that the association recently built a football field at Vance Harmon Park, the first one in Poinciana, but it took years to make it happen.
“There aren’t many homeowners associations that will build a football field,” she said. “APV went above and beyond what they need to do as a homeowners association, but at the end of the day they’re not a government body. They can’t apply for a grant, and we get none of the federal money back. We don’t get the gas taxes back or our share of the sales tax. That just goes to the county. Because Poinciana never has a bowl at the table with the county, it’s hard to get those dollars down here. If it does come back next time around, there has to be more education up front about incorporation. It’s going to be a lot easier to do than dragging people kicking and screaming that don’t want to be in this.”
That’s why, Farrell said, if Solivita wants out of the incorporation discussions, that shouldn’t be resisted.
“I don’t think Solivita could stop Poinciana from becoming a city if that was the will of a majority of people in Poinciana,” she said. “But whether incorporation will come back, who knows?”
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