FOUR CORNERS – For years now, some members of the business community have been arguing that too much government regulation is strangling local companies, particularly in these rough economic times when some local firms are still downsizing and eliminating jobs.
But at least one local county is heading in the opposite direction, and looking to more heavily regulate the businesses along U.S. 192, from Four Corners at the Polk and Osceola County line right down to Kissimmee and St. Cloud.
And in doing this, Osceola County officials expect to probably have the full support of the local business community – because their aim, said Hector Lizasuain, isn’t to weaken local companies with excessive bureaucratic hoops, but instead to give companies an opportunity to take more pride in being in operation on that highway.
“We want to fix the overall appearance of U.S. 192,” said Lizasuain, Osceola County’s West 192 coordinator, responsible for helping to maintain growth and economic prosperity along that busy highway, which remains the main link from Four Corners to the major theme parks like Disney, and which attracts thousands of visitors every year.
On the other hand, sections of U.S. 192 that haven’t survived the impact of the recession or the collapse of the Central Florida housing market have become an issue – and a headache – for the entire corridor. Existing businesses that have survived the downturn are getting fed up with the run down, dilapidated shops that have either closed their doors, or where the owners have stopped maintaining the look of the building, to the point where they’ve become an eyesore and embarrassment to the entire corridor.
Mary Ellen Kerber is the manager of Formosa Gardens, the shopping plaza on U.S. 192 that’s started to grow again. Kerber also serves on the West 192 Economic Advisory Committee, which is trying to find ways to boost the tourism corridor and make recommendations for improving it.
Kerber noted that Formosa Gardens just welcomed in a new business, Ace Hardware, which she said was significant because it’s not a tourist-oriented business, but one aimed at local residents — providing a healthier and more diverse mix to the shopping plaza overall.
“An Ace Hardware in a tourist-driven place sounds a little crazy, but I’m excited we’re getting something more locally driven in there,” she said. “I want to get the word out about it.”
At the same time, that kind of growth is likely to stop if U.S. 192 becomes an embarrassment because of the shops that have been allowed to fall into disrepair, she said.
“We need to set and maintain minimum standards,” she said.
Lizasuain said the county is already working on that.
“We’re working on minimum maintenance standards,” he said. “It’s in the county attorney’s hands now” for review.
Assuming the county attorney decides the proposal is legally sound, Lizasuain said the proposal will be presented to Osceola County commissioners for a vote. But he stressed that their approach isn’t going to be simply threatening fines against businesses that fail to comply. The county actually hopes to work with these companies and not just scare them, Lizasuain said.
“We don’t want to just set minimum maintenance standards and then go chasing after people,” he said. “We’re hoping to have funding in place by October 1 for helping those people who are not in compliance to get into compliance.”
The county also wants to secure federal grants for brownfield cleanups – although as Lizasuain noted, they don’t want to use that name.
“Calling it a brownfield program sounds horrible,” he said. “We’re going to go beige.”
A Brownfield site is, by the definition of the federal government, is an abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facility available for re-use, but that may have environmental contaminations that first need to be cleaned up. These are properties that have previously been used for industrial or commercial purposes, and may have high concentrations of hazardous waste or pollution. Federal legislation was created to provide grants for the clean up of the properties so they can be used again for commercial operations.
“It’s a federal grant program,” Lizasuain said. “It provides tax incentives for businesses that want to come in there. A lot of our properties out there were built in the late 1970s and 1980s when the buildings had asbestos or lead.”
Osceola County wants to set up a new program called “Façade Improvement Standards,” rather than Brownfields, Lizasuain said, to get people interested in relocating to those industrial properties once they get cleaned up.
“That’s one thing we’re doing to try to bring people more economic incentives,” he said.
But to really make this program work, Lizasuain said, the neighboring counties that host sections of U.S. 192 need to develop similar standards for local businesses, since Osceola doesn’t cover the entire highway. In Four Corners, sections of U.S. 192 also go into Northeast Polk County, South Lake County, and Orange County.
Lizasuain said he’s particularly hopeful about bringing Polk County on board as well.
“We don’t have that yet, although we have taken this (program) to the county line,” he said.
Lizasuain and Kerber are members of the Four Corners Area Council, a group of business owners on U.S. 192 and U.S. 27 in Polk and Lake counties, who meet once a month. The council held its monthly meeting on Thursday at ChampionsGate Golf Resort.
Gene Terrico, the chairman of the council, agreed that Polk, Orange and Lake counties should get on board this program, making it a regional effort.
“It’s a starting point to hopefully then get in Orange and Polk as well,” he said.
“This has to be incorporated by all four counties or this is useless,” Kerber agreed.
Cecilia Smith works for the Lake County Economic Development and Tourism Office, where she works to promote economic development in South Lake County, from Clermont down to Four Corners. She said Osceola County and the Four Corners Area Council are on the right track to follow federal guidelines for grant programs, and then look for ways to apply those standards locally in order to qualify for federal assistance.
“Orlando is a great example of this,” she said. “They build condos that are very expensive – except for a couple of local income families that qualify for 20 percent of the building. As a result, the city got tax incentives for all of the building materials.”