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Lauren Ritchie: Voters shot down a performing arts center. What's next for Tavares?

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 11/18/2019 By Lauren Ritchie, Orlando Sentinel

What’s next, Tavares?

Residents couldn’t have spoken more clearly than they did on Nov. 5 when they voted down a proposal to build a performing arts center by a margin of 87% to 13%.

Still, that doesn’t mean residents want to stop improving their city. It does mean they didn’t want to spend $27 million on a single project that would have cost each homeowner several hundred dollars in additional property taxes annually.

The vote is probably one of those blessings in disguise. While a tony performing arts center certainly would be impressive and have all the little extra goodies, the problem was that Tavares would have been entering a crowded market.

Clermont, with more than twice the population of Tavares, has trouble attracting the best shows and doesn’t fill its 1,000-seat venue often. The Villages retirement community, on the other end of the county, has a couple 1,000-seat venues, which it easily fills. But the Villages has 130,000 retirees who crave entertainment and can afford tickets.

Lake-Sumter State College has a smaller auditorium, and just last week Leesburg opened a new venue whose largest of three rooms can accommodate 1,000 for performances or banquets. Venetian Center, which features a full catering kitchen, replaces the aged community center on the waterfront that was torn down for the new center.

Usually when one project in Tavares doesn’t work out, City Administrator John Drury, the architect of the city’s remake into “America’s Seaplane City,” has another plan in his back pocket.

Not this time.

Drury said the city needs to focus on finishing projects it already has started. The most pricey of those is a multi-use trail between Tavares and Mount Dora, likely along abandoned railroad corridor.

The state is paying the cost of a study to determine the best route and the price of a trail that would exceed five miles, but the current rough estimate is $25 million. The trail would start in Tavares at the railroad station and meander along the lakefront to downtown Mount Dora.

“Once we know the cost of that, then we’re going to have to get some serious grants and build partnerships with Mount Dora, the YMCA,” Drury said. “We’ll have to get together and talk about where the money is coming from.”

The second project is to rebuild the city’s seaplane base, which was destroyed by Hurricane Irma. The city has hired the Jacksonville company Haskell, and it is expected to present the city before Dec. 18 with a guaranteed maximum price to rebuild the marina, seaplane base, docks and fueling facilities.

The cost is being covered 98% by insurance and 2% by the city. If the cost were about $15 million, the city would be responsible for $300,000, Drury said. The project will take about a year. Over the next six weeks, residents will see the company start by removing old pilings.

And finally, the city plans to replace Wooton Wonderland, the wooden playground that was built in the 1990s and that started the variety of entertainment goodies since constructed on the shore of Lake Dora.

The wood has deteriorated, Drury said, and pressure treating years ago involved chemicals that no longer should be used for projects on which children play. Typically, arsenic was infused into wood at the time to keep it from rotting.

How the new playground will be themed is undecided, however.

“We need to come up with great, creative ideas. It’s a signature place,” Drury said. “I’m thinking Swiss Family Robinson tree, Huckleberry Finn, something like that.

“It should have a wild feel to it and be a great place to have a birthday party. Having people come to your rural community for that playground would be awesome.”

For a decade now, the city has relied on investing in itself and reaping the benefits of growth to give it both a new character and an economic kick. As each project concluded, Drury had another on deck and ready to roll.

The plan paid off.

Tavares gained not only homes but valuable hotels on the waterfront, along with restaurants and other businesses downtown. The city and other groups sponsor dozens of events that draw people to downtown on the weekends.

Your local columnist has a dusty memory of downtown Tavares in 1980. It could have been more boring and lifeless, but it’s hard to imagine how.

In the past, residents paid most of the property taxes. The split between property owners and businesses now is 70-30, and Drury said he’s aiming for 60-40.

What might happen if the city changed its tactics and either stopped or slowed its spending on community projects?

Drury said he’s not worried. He said he believes residents have underestimated the economic power of the Tavares Pavilion on the Lake, which extends on pilings into Lake Dora and is the site of 150 weddings a year.

The average cost of each wedding is $23,000, which brings $3.5 million to community businesses, and that doesn’t include what guests spend to stay in local lodgings and to eat at local restaurants.

The wedding business creates jobs for waiters, waitresses, cooks, hotel workers, videographers, photographers, florists, caterers and rental companies.

“It’s a little thing when you look at it, but it’s a-hummin’ and a-goin’ every weekend, just a-hummin and a-goin’ ” Drury said.

The economic impact is huge, he said, and not what the city used to do, which was “swirl money around that already was here.”

He said the city will continue to support the medical park, including AdventHealth Waterman and medical offices and businesses across U.S. Highway 441, along with an industrial park on the south side of town and the seaplane manufacturing business on State Road 19 just north of Lane Park Cutoff Road.

He predicated that the city will continue to grow, especially after the marina is rebuilt, bringing the return of seaplanes, and that the pavilion will become so popular that weddings and other events increasingly will be pushed into mid-week.

He said city workers will “spit-spot and polish” the marina and pavilion, and evening entertainment on the waterfront will be “alive and vibrant.”

If the community embraces the trail, the city administrator said, he can envision bicycle shops on both ends of it.

Leave it to Drury. He can see it already. And if he can see it, it almost inevitably will come.

Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com

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