CHAMPIONSGATE – A group of business owners along the U.S. 192 tourism corridor have another month to come up with proposals to boost a highway that’s been hard hit by the recession – and, more importantly, to create not just a long-term plan, but something that helps right away.
Earlier this year, Osceola County commissioners appointed a special W192 Economic Advisory Committee, made up of business owners on the 15-mile stretch from Four Corners to Kissimmee, to figure out ways to turn the entire highway into a thriving commercial corridor. The committee was originally supposed to make a final report to commissioners by Dec. 16, but that deadline just got pushed to Monday, Jan. 9.
In the meantime, the committee will hold two final meetings, on Dec. 15 and Jan. 5. Mary Ellen Kerber, the manager of the Formosa Gardens Shopping Plaza in Four Corners and a representative on the committee, is urging local business owners to attend both meetings and voice their concerns.
“Everyone has a difference of opinion – what’s the long range plan, what’s the short range plan,” she said.
This morning, Kerber outlined the committee’s work so far to the Four Corners Area Council, a group of business owners in the Four Corners area of U.S. 192 and U.S. 27. The council meets once a month, and held its final meeting of the year at ChampionsGate Golf Resort. Kerber, a member of the council and its chairman last year, said the W192 Economic Advisory Committee has been focusing on Community Redevelopment Agencies as a means of boosting U.S. 192.
CRAs are public entities created by a city or county to implement community redevelopment activities in a specific, economically depressed area. Creating a CRA also allows the county to apply for state and federal grants for the improvements being planned.
“Right now, they’re looking at the possibility of a CRA,” Kerber said of the committee. “A CRA is a wonderful tool. There’s a question of how many we should have. We think there should be two.”
One would cover the highway’s tourism stretch, from Four Corners to Celebration, she said, while the second one could cover the areas closer to Kissimmee and St. Cloud, which are farther away from the theme parks like Walt Disney World.
“What works in a tourism area and what works in a local (area) are two different things,” she said.
But Kerber added that this is a long-term plan that could take a decade to fully implement, and many of the businesses struggling on U.S. 192 need help now.
“A CRA is not an immediate solution,” she said. “It would take us 10 years to get the money. We can’t wait 10 years. We need a fix now.”
Hector Lizasuain, the outgoing chairman of the Four Corners Area Council, said it’s important for the county to find both long term and immediate ways to assist the corridor, which is why the special committee was formed.
“They were tasked with coming up with a plan for what they want 192 to be, and it’s a huge task,” Lizasuain said. “I understand that CRA’s are valuable tools, and there’s some possibilities to get funding sooner rather than later. But that’s still medium to long range.”
For the moment, Lizasuain said, the county needs to give the highway a quick boost.
“We need some kind of economic development pebble in the pond to create that ripple effect,” Lizasuain said.
Gene Terrico, who will be the chairman of the Four Corners Area Council in 2012, agreed that it’s important to have different visions for Four Corners and for the stretch of the highway near Kissimmee. Four Corners, he said, is doing much better economically.
“There is a defined downtown as you move east along 192,” he said. “The area here, the Four Corners area, is doing well and is pretty vibrant. It puts us in the position to say we’re on the rise, we’ve kind of peaked, how do we stay there.”
But Kerber disagreed, saying many of the restaurants, hotels and gift shops in Four Corners feel the tourism market hasn’t turned around for them yet.
“We feel like we are in a downturn, and we need to turn that around,” she said. “There’s new development, but there’s not growth in tourism, so the pie is getting cut up into smaller pieces. So we have to refocus on how do we get heads into beds.”
Marc Reicher, the vice president of development at ChampionsGate and the former chairman of the Four Corners Area Council, said Four Corners does at least have strengths that it can build on, like new businesses that have relocated here in the past two years, despite the economic downturn.
“Maybe we’re not on the rise, but we’re in a slower decline,” Reicher said. “We still have assets here.”
Paul Senft, Haines City’s economic development director, said the council shouldn’t write off the benefits of a CRA, even if they are long range ones.
“You need a comprehensive plan for the area,” he said. “Now is the best time to move forward on a CRA plan, because the ad valorum (property) values are so low. The CRA will capture the eventual rise in those values.”
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