POINCIANA – Buck Raith has lived in Poinciana for more than a decade, and can remember when the community made up of 10 villages still looked and felt rural, and had fewer than 14,000 people.
“It was great when it was 13,000,” Raith said. “But in order to make it appealing, they had to start building other accommodations — stores and gas stations and things like that.”
Throughout the past decade, Osceola County was the second fastest growing county in Florida and one of the fastest growing in the nation. The building boom came to Poinciana as well. The unincorporated community, which is divided between Osceola and Polk counties, grew by a whopping 289 percent in the last decade, according to the most recent census figures. On the Osceola County side, that 13,000 population soared to 53,193. When you add in the people living on the less crowded Polk County side, the community’s total population soars above 69,000.
The community’s main developer, Avatar, spent most of the last 10 years rushing to meet the demand for new housing, and built a lot of new homes. That put a lot of growth pressure on the community’s schools, roads and services.
“One of the things on the down side was they built up, built up, built up, but didn’t plan the infrastructure,” Raith said.
So was the growth good or bad for the unincorporated community? Raith said that’s a difficult question to answer. The growth left the community with heavy traffic congestion, he noted, since “There’s only one main thoroughfare here.”
On the other hand, the residential growth convinced Osceola Regional Medical Center, the hospital in downtown Kissimmee, to commit to building the first hospital in Poinciana – something that might not have happened if the community had stayed at 13,000, Raith said.
“One of the up sides is it brought about advances by way of bringing in a hospital,” he said. “The buildup wasn’t a bad thing. It’s just the ridiculous nature of the nation’s mortgage crisis that hurt us.”
When the housing market collapsed, it left behind banks reeling from too many bad loans, and helped create both a credit crisis and a home foreclosure crisis – both of which badly hurt Poinciana.
Wendy Farrell is a business owner in Poinciana who runs Signature Promotions. She said the down sides to growth are easy to see.
“We have terrible problems with overcrowding in our schools,” she said, adding that traffic is also a lingering problem.
“If you look at our road system and transportation system, it’s a bottleneck here in Poinciana,” she said. “People say if you don’t get out by 7 (a.m.), forget it. Even if your appointment is at 9 in the morning, you need to be out of here by 7. It’s a known thing. ‘What time shall I leave? Anytime before 7.’ “
But she agreed with Raith that only a growing community could have convinced an existing medical facility to build a hospital in Poinciana. Right now, the closest hospitals to the community are in Celebration, Kissimmee and Haines City – not an easy drive if there’s a medical emergency.
“I think the hospital is absolutely crucial to economic development here in Poinciana,” Farrell said. “Initially it’s just medical, but all the people who come to work there need to get gas, go out to lunch, and shop here and there. It’s more of an anchor than a department store. It’s not just shops. It’s not just retail. It’s just far reaching.”
Betty Dobbie is the chairman of the Poinciana Area Council, a group of business owners in Poinciana who meet once a month. Overall, Dobbie said, growth has been a positive for the community.
“There’s two sides to growth,” she said. “Growth is never easy. It never comes in a calm way. Growth is always in spurts.”
But she added, “I think growth is always good. I don’t think you can ever look at growth as being detrimental.”
Growth has helped Poinciana get a new, larger post office, a YMCA and now the hospital, she said.
“I think that’s going to create a spurt for economic improvement in the Poinciana area,” Dobbie said.
Raith said growth also led to the community to an important dialogue about the future: whether Poinciana should stop being unincorporated land hosting 10 villages across two counties, and instead become a municipality like Kissimmee, St. Cloud or Haines City.
The move was ultimately rejected by residents, in part out of concerns that it could lead to tax increases to pay for municipal services that would include a government body, such as a mayor and city council form of government.
But Raith, who supported the push to incorporate the community, said the idea will probably get revived in the future if Poinciana starts growing again.
“Making it an incorporated community in and of itself — even though that went bust — there’s still an opportunity for that to happen,” Raith said.
While taxes would almost certainly rise to pay for municipal services, Raith added, “It would be a give and take. You wouldn’t have an entire community run in a homeowners association capacity.”
Poinciana’s 10 villages are now governed by a homeowners association, the Association of Poinciana Villages, which sets the rules that homeowners must live by.
“You would remove that and people would have more freedom in terms of what they could do with their residence, rather than having a noose around their necks with the deed restrictions,” Raith said. “The upside of the homeowners association is it keeps a tether on people so they’re not making their homes look like junkyards.”
Farrell also supported incorporation, and said people need to understand that being a heavily populated community comes with a price.
“It’s not the best news, to be honest,” she said of the past decade’s growth. “What happened to most of the town is you had readily available housing because the housing market was booming, and they were throwing up houses left and right. Then the market crashed, and we’re paying the price of that now. You look at our economic base today and it’s non-existent. You’ve got thousands of people moving into the area, but what will they do for employment?”
Still, Farrell thinks once the hospital gets built, the community will experience a solid economic revivial.
“We want to build Poinciana so it’s a place where people live, work and play,” she said. “So yes, growth has its pluses and minuses.”
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