Voter registration drive in Poinciana aims to increase the political influence of a community that often feels ignored and forgotten.

Keith Laytham, the president of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, talks about his upcoming registration drive during a meeting at the Poinciana Library on Monday. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

POINCIANA – Keith Laytham is on a mission: to move virtually every resident of Poinciana to one very specific place.
And that place is the voting booth.
The resident of the Solivita development on the Polk County side of Poinciana is pushing a voter registration drive this year, in anticipation of Florida’s Aug. 14 state primary, followed by the November general election. His goal isn’t partisan, although Laytham is a member of the Democratic Executive Committee of Polk County.
Instead, it has to do with something else entirely – wielding influence, he said. Voting, he believes, and getting people to the polls, produces results.
”This election is important not just for the nation, but for Poinciana,’’ Laytham said. ”The things we have now in Poinciana is because we have a lot of people in Poinciana, and they let their voice be heard.’’
Laytham is the president of Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, a civic group that meets on a regular basis, organizes events, and looks for ways to promote Poinciana’s interests and improve the community of 84,000 residents.
It’s a huge community, larger than neighboring cities like St. Cloud in Osceola County and Haines City in Polk County, and Poinciana’s 10 villages include 52,000 people in Osceola and 31,000 in Polk. In the first five months of this year, Poinciana residents have been able to celebrate several landmark victories, including the groundbreaking of the Poinciana Medical Center campus, which will include the community’s first hospital; the approval by the Osceola County Expressway Authority of a new toll road, the Poinciana Parkway, which will make it easier for residents to get in and out of the community; and the marking of the community’s 40th anniversary, with a celebration on Saturday at Vance Harmon Park. That’s where Laytham plans to begin his voter registration drive.
”We’re got some people who will be out there signing up residents for voter registration,’’ Laytham said of the Association of Poinciana Village’s Music and Health Festival, being held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
This is not an effort to tell people how to vote, he added.
”We’re a civic group,’’ Laytham said.
But he does believe that there’s strength in numbers – a lot of numbers. Poinciana, with more than 80,000 residents, deserves to get more attention from state and county political leaders, Laytham said, because only when local residents demonstrate that they’ll pile into the voting booths will the community get approval for the projects it wants.
After all, he noted, the community had to lobby Florida state government to sign on to the Poinciana Medical Center and provide the facility with a certificate of need after the application by the parent company, Hospital Corporation of America, was rejected twice. The certificate of need had been challenged by two existing hospitals, Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center in Haines City and St. Cloud Regional Medical Center, which had urged the state to deny the application because they said a new hospital in Central Florida would exacerbate an existing nursing shortage.
Likewise, Laytham said, resident lobbying and pressure convinced county leaders in both Osceola and Polk to move forward on the Poinciana Parkway, despite concerns about how to fund it at a time when the recession and the collapse of the housing market left both counties with serious budget woes.
Throughout the housing boom, road improvement projects were financed by impact fees, or fees imposed on the construction of new homes to help pay for alleviating the growth pressures that the new homes put on the community. But when the housing market collapsed and new construction came to a halt, the county virtually stopped collecting any impact fees, and the funds for transportation projects like the Poinciana Parkway disappeared as well.
It took a lot of lobbying, Laytham said, to get the counties back on board with this project, which will be a public toll road, with the fees collected used by the Osceola County Expressway Authority to finance the long term maintenance costs of the highway.
”The most exciting thing that’s happened in Poinciana in a long time is the hospital,’’ Laytham said. ”The Poinciana Parkway ranks number two in the community, after the hospital. A lot of good things are going on.’’
That won’t continue, he said, unless people vote – and in large enough numbers to send a clear message to the Osceola County government in Kissimmee, the Polk County government in Bartow, and state government in Tallahassee.
”Osceola County is going to start construction of the Poinciana Parkway in November 2012, and the estimate is it will take 24 months to build – or less,’’ Laytham said. ”That will be a very key part of this community. The Osceola County Expressway Authority has not decided how much to charge for the tolls, but we do know this is the first of four toll roads planned by the county to be built by 2020. The Poinciana Parkway is just a piece of a plan the Osceola County Expressway Authority has to put a ring around Osceola County. I think this is a very good thing for Poinciana.’’
Avatar, the main builder in Poinciana, had proposed the Poinciana Parkway in 2006, but the original price tag of $40 million ballooned out of control as Avatar faced challenges building the road through the Reedy Creek preserve, an environmentally protected area. Avatar was forced to plan for the construction of a four mile bridge over the preserve to keep it from being disturbed by the new highway. That inflated the potential cost of the roadway to well beyond $170 million.
Last year, Avatar worked out a new agreement with commissioners in Osceola and Polk counties, so that the Poinciana Parkway would no longer be a private road, but a public road owned by the two counties.
Atlee Mercer, the chairman of the Osceola County Expressway Authority, said his agency is now doing a toll study that projects what the tolls collected from this new roadway are likely to be over the next 20 years. That’s going to help Osceola County leaders secure bonds that will be used to finance the project.
The highway would be operated by the Osceola County Expressway Authority, which was created in 2010 to allow Osceola County to have its own agency to oversee road construction in the future. Previously, Osceola was under the supervision of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.
Laytham said local residents need to understand that if they’re sick of sitting in traffic and want better roads, they need to speak up and fight for them. A project that will cost the state or the county millions isn’t an easy sell in a rough economy, Laytham said, but it’s not an impossibility, either, especially if residents keep fighting for it.
That’s why he plans to use Saturday’s birthday bash to educate residents who turn out at Vance Harmon Park that good things are going on in the community – and are likely to continue happening, if the entire community bands together.
”We’re trying to get more people to come out to these events and learn more about the community,’’ Laytham said. ”One of the things people talk about in Orlando in relation to Poinciana is what a pain traffic is getting in here.’’
If the Poinciana Parkway comes through, he said, a lot of that changes.

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