KISSIMMEE – A lot of business owners on U.S. 192 surely would like to expand, upgrade their property, and find new ways to attract customers, said Nigel Worrel, who operates Total Business & Marketing Solutions on that tourism corridor.
But while they retain the motivation and desire to expand, what they sorely lack in these tough economic times, he added, is the capital to do so.
“A lot of business owners, they don’t have the money to do anything,” he said. “Nobody on (U.S.) 192 has $10,000 at the moment.”
That’s not exactly what government leaders in Osceola County want to hear, since there has been a concerted effort in the past few years to fix up and improve U.S. 192, and one of the fastest ways to do that, said Hector Lizasuain, would be for businesses to improve their properties and upgrade what they offer customers.
“You go to some parts of (U.S) 192, and we’re still in the mid-1980s on a lot of the corridor, and we’re not as competitive because of that,” said Lizasuain, Osceola County’s West 192 coordinator. “We can’t just sit there and slap a can of paint on a building and think that’s going to solve everything.”
But now Osceola County may be ready to try a new approach that could significantly assist those businesses, Lizasuain said, and it involves the very challenge that Worrell said they’re all facing: a lack of funds to expand or improve.
“We’re starting to talk to banks now, too,” Lizasuain said. “They’ve cut into lending, and we’re trying to see if we can free up some of that money. It’s part of an incentive program.”
The program, which Osceola County is just starting to put into place, is essentially a federally funded market tax incentive program designed to encourage banks to start lending again.
“It incentivizes the actual bank, and allows them to utilize credit for up to seven years, and loosens capital for investment purposes,” Lizasuain said. “It’s a federal program, and it’s a great opportunity, especially with the banks being gun-shy at the moment.”
On Thursday, Lizasuain spoke to members of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, the trade group representing managers of vacation homes. The association held its monthly meeting at WonderWorks, the attraction on International Drive.
Lizasuain said he wanted to update the vacation home managers on the efforts being made to turn U.S. 192 into a thriving tourism and business corridor.
The downfall of some sections of U.S. 192, he said, “didn’t happen overnight. It took place over 20 years.”
Lizasuain noted that a decade ago, Osceola County launched a Beautification program on U.S. 192 to make the corridor more appealing, with new walking and bike paths, improved signage, and informational kiosks put up there.
What they didn’t expect, he said, was the impact the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 2001 would have on the tourism industry – the nation’s airports were shut down for a week to ensure security measures were improved – followed by the housing market crash and the national recession.
“The beautification project was intended to spur development,” he said. “Then we had 911, we had the economy crash. It was a perfect storm.”
The vacation home industry has a strong presence on U.S. 192, and last year Osceola County commissioners appointed a special committee to recommend ways to make the highway more economically vibrant.
The West 192 Redevelopment Council has been hosting Redevelopment Plan Community meetings to convince area residents and businesses operating on the highway to become involved in future plans to improve U.S. 192.
Some sections of the highway are doing better than others, including the area around Four Corners, which is continuing to attract new businesses. The sections closer to Kissimmee and St. Cloud are plagued by a high number of vacant, abandoned properties that have become eyesores to the rest of the corridor’s business community.
Lizasuain said the county wants to address those dilapidated businesses by working with the owners to improve them.
“We’ve hired a special code enforcement officer to patrol that area, and we’ve created what we call minimum maintenance standards for those buildings,” he said.
The approach, he added, will not be intended to penalize the owners, but to see if they can find ways to work together to spruce up their buildings.
As for businesses that are still operating but hurting for capital to expand, Lizasuain said the county is now putting together the program to convince banks to lend again.
“We’re now working on the grant program and the incentive program,” he said. “The county is changing direction as far as economic development goes.”
But a big challenge, Lizasuain said, is the fact that U.S. 192 cuts through four counties – Osceola, Orange, Lake and Polk – and to revitalize the entire corridor requires the assistance of all four county governments working together. The four county lines meet in the Four Corners area, where U.S. 192 ends at U.S. 27 in Northeast Polk County and South Lake County.
“Four Corners is a real sensitive area, where you have four municipalities all bumping up against one another,” Lizasuain said. “That leaves you asking, ‘How can we get development on our side and not their side?’ Well, we have to work with one another. We can’t be in competition.”
That, Lizasuain said, is his message for the vacation home industry as well.
“Be involved,” he said. “Stay involved. Engage. I think what has happened is that just trying to engage the businesses was a task. They didn’t really work as a community or an industry as a whole unless something came up. Now they’re beginning to understand we’re all in this together.”
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