FOUR CORNERS – After years of complaints that the highway had become in some places a major eyesore, Osceola County is getting more serious about improving U.S. 192 and revitalizing this highway that runs from Four Corners down through Celebration, Kissimmee, and St. Cloud.
Although the corridor has been sections that are doing well and even some new development – particularly in Four Corners on the west end of 192 – much of the highway is plagued by boarded up, vacant businesses and outdated signage, said Mary Ellen Kerber.
“There are just some properties that are never going to make it,” Kerber said. “They just have to be torn down.”
Kerber is the manager of the Formosa Gardens Shopping Plaza on U.S. 192, and she also serves on the U.S. 192 Economic Advisory Committee, formed earlier this year by the Osceola County commissioners to find ways to boost and improve the highway. She said it’s time to start looking at bold new ideas.
“As business people, we know there’s a problem on 192,” she said. “We know there’s depressed properties there. We know there is signage falling apart. We know there are problems with long term rentals.”
Long term rentals are hotels that no longer provide rooms to tourists or business travelers, but instead rent to families unable to afford to get into an apartment or home.
Kerber said the committee is being forced to look for new ways of breathing life into a corridor that is struggling to shake off the impact of the national recession and the collapse of the housing market.
“What are some aggressive ways of brainstorming,” she said. “Do we look at the county to come up with special funding or taxing to help?”
Kerber said she’s proposed setting new standards, particularly for signage, so that the highway gets cleaned up and is more appealing to visitors and area residents alike.
“The center of this has to be how do we stimulate growth on this corridor,” she said. “We also have to set new standards on signage. We’re talking about West 192 here, which runs for two miles on either side, and we’re talking the tourist corridor. A lot of our businesses are impacted by tourism.”
The west end of U.S. 192, in Four Corners, is known for its restaurants, gift shops and hotels. Further along, closer to where U.S. 192 ends at the Polk/Lake County line at U.S. 27, is some newly built development, including the Rolling Oak Commons shopping plaza and the Westside K-8 School, the first public school in Four Corners.
Kerber said this part of the highway is a mix of new development and businesses that have been around since nearby Walt Disney World first opened in 1971 – an odd mix, she added, since some of the older businesses are having a hard time in this rough economy.
“There are some hotels that have been there since Disney opened 40 years ago,” she said. “If we improve the look of that corridor, people will want to come back here.”
Kerber has proposed some other incentives, including having the county create a Community Redevelopment Agency to oversee Four Corners and help find ways to generate more economic development there, and convincing the counties to tear down old, dilapidated properties.
Hector Lizasuain is Osceola County’s West 192 coordinator. He said what’s required now is stronger enforcement of existing county ordinances when business owners abandon their properties, leaving it behind as an empty eyesore.
“The first thing on my list is minimum maintenance standards, and then enforcement,” Lizasuain said. “People are walking away from properties. You’ll have one business and then the one next to it is vacant.”
For those properties that have been empty for years and may seem too costly to rehabilitate, Lizasuain said Osceola County should invest in state and federal Brownfield grants, which can be used to clean up older properties contaminated by oil spills and other industrial waste.
By getting these properties cleaned up now, Lizasuain said, they become more appealing – and cost-effective – to new business owners.
“We can go in there and tear the structure down and deal with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) stuff, and that’s a good incentive for them,” he said. “Then they don’t have to deal with that.”
Rob Cochran, who runs Camping Connections on U.S. 192 in Four Corners, said this is also about having a long term vision for where the counties want the highway to be in the future.
“I think we need to create an identity in this area first,” he said.
Kerber said that identity still rests with one thing: tourism, in part because this is the corridor that leads tourists directly to Walt Disney World.
“We’re still driven by tourism, and no matter what you may think of the mouse, that’s critical here,” she said.
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