CELEBRATION – Alfred R. Valentino III has no doubts about it. The community of Celebration, which attracts plenty to tourists to its downtown, would experience a healthy boost in business if the state of Florida brings commuter rail to their doorstep.
“I definitely think that would be a benefit to the whole region over here,” Valentino said.
Valentino is in the business of helping other businesses. In January, he helped organize the new Greater Celebration Chamber of Commerce. The aim is to work with local businesses to help them growth and thrive. Another part of his mission is to make sure the region surrounding Celebration is appealing to visitors, since Valentino believes the commuter rail line known as SunRail, if it gets constructed, will become a plus to the local business community.
“Not only will that generate employment for people who have to build the rail, but have designs for shopping centers around it as well,” he said. “People can take the train, and when they get off the train, there would be shopping right by the station. They might be able to have a little shopping done when they get off the train, so they can grab their groceries and hop in their car and drive home.”
With the proposed high speed train from Orlando to Tampa now on life support – Gov. Rick Scott had rejected $2.4 billion from the Obama administration to fund it – and possibly dead, supporters of SunRail are stepping up their vocal support for this project.
It would be a 61-mile rail line that would run from Debary in Volusia County to downtown Orlando, and then on to the Poinciana Industrial Park. Along the way, it would include a stop near Celebration.
Valentino noted that Celebration already benefits from its popular downtown, which hosts special events like the 4th of July Flashbacks and the Snow Falling Nightly in December. A commuter train, he added, would add more appeal to the community.
He noted, for example, that Celebration is the home to several corporate offices, which hire people who don’t know much about what’s available beyond their company’s front doorstep.
“A lot of those people, they live in Tampa or Lakeland,” Valentino said. “At the end of the day they jump on the highway. Maybe they will go up to the Water Tower shopping center. But if you ask them what’s in downtown Celebration, they don’t know. We’re trying to say, ‘Guys, we’re trying to make everyone aware of what’s going on here. It’s kind of eclectic to see what we have here on the same street, but it’s working, and there’s a number of businesses here that those workers would benefit from.”
Valentino isn’t the only one welcoming a SunRail stop in his community. Steve Leary, a candidate for the Winter Park city commission, likewise thinks his city’s downtown would benefit from the foot traffic that SunRail would bring.
“I think it’s going to be incredibly important to us as a region,” Leary said of SunRail. “I grew up on a rail line (in New York), and I know how important it will be for the people in the region to come here and help our merchants along.”
That’s particularly true for Winter Park’s popular Park Avenue shopping district, he said.
“Merchants here need guests from other towns to come in to help them,” he said. “This is welcoming people as guests, rather than outsiders, to our town.”
Critics have charged that SunRail would attract a minimal number of riders and would saddle the region with long term maintenance costs that would get prohibitively expensive if ridership doesn’t meet expectations. On March 16, the anti-tax group Ax the Tax is holding a rally in Tallahassee to urge the governor to kill the SunRail project as well.
But Leary said their concerns are overstated.
“Do we need to work on finding a dedicated funding source for SunRail? Sure,” he said. “But we have time to figure that out, and we will figure that out.”
Valentino said it’s also important to think about the long term benefits to the business community from SunRail. He noted that since the housing market crashed and the national recession set in back in 2008, Celebration has experienced its share of business turnover.
“I would probably equate it to what we see in the residential community,” he said. “There’s some residents who will move in and test it for a year, and if it doesn’t work they move on. We actually see that with the business community, too. There are a lot that will come in for a year or two and just say, ‘You know, this is not the business decision we should make.’ “
Having a commuter rail, he said, might give businesses the added confidence that their customer base will grow — and maybe even encourage more entrepreneurs to open shop here.
“If you look at the business owners anywhere in town, a lot of them are owned or managed by Celebration residents,” Valentino said. “It could be that they feel if they want to have a business, they want to have something unique to their own nature. They want to enjoy what they’re doing.”
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