Residents Plan to Turn Out for Big Casino Meet on Villages Proposal

Image of commissioners and mayor

Commissioners Gunter, Goldberg and Cheshire, Mayor Bell, and CommissionerKelly, seated.

Fruitland Park — When George T. Clark designed The Casino on Berckman Street in Fruitland Park, he envisioned a local showcase with all the modern conveniences—a large stage, dressing rooms, steam heat, running water, and even electric lights.

The year was 1914. America was readying for World War I.

On Thursday night the 99-year old Casino building will host a public meeting to air a plan that will change Fruitland Park forever, doubling the city’s population in two short years.

Mayor Chris Bell called for the meeting to gauge community concerns over the proposed Villages of Fruitland Park, which promises 1,972 new homes and an estimated 3,648 new residents.

Bell plans to present project overviews from city staff; Greg Belliveau, who heads LPG Urban & Regional Planning and Consulting in Mount Dora and serves as the city’s chief planner; and Gary Moyer, Vice President for Development at The Villages.
Commissioners will then break into smaller groups to field questions from constituents, then reconvene at the dais to provide such answers as are possible.

The public is invited. Non-residents should keep in mind that the Casino building will accommodate approximately 100 people and while the building was renovated in the 1970’s, it clearly shows its age. So does its air conditioning system. And parking is limited.

Nevertheless, city commissioners are expecting a lively turnout. After all there’s plenty to talk about.

With just 4,078 people as of the 2010 census, Fruitland Park is the smallest city in north Lake County except Umatilla, on the edge of the Ocala Forest.

Once the Villages of Fruitland Park is approved for development, officials estimate it will take just 24 months to build all 1,972 new homes.

For two years or more, Fruitland Park will rank as the nation’s fastest-growing city.

And that means a certain notoriety that’s sure to catch the eye of lenders, developers, home builders, retailers, banks and health care providers, to name a few. Fruitland Park will occupy the catbird seat atop the list of high-growth U.S. communities just as the U.S. pulls out of its lengthy national recession.

Will city officials be able to provide city services to twice as many people arriving virtually overnight?

An Impact Analysis prepared by LPG Urban & Regional Planning points out some of the ways the city must prepare for the growth spurt. Upgrades to the city’s water system will cost more than $3.5 million. Training and equipping nine new police officers will cost a little more than $1 million the first year and $750,000 a year after that. Widening of 466-A becomes mandatory.

And some residents would prefer that the proposed development site—long known as the Pine Ridge Dairy—remain idyllic pastures and farmlands.

For community development director Charlie Rector, Pine Ridge Dairy holds fond memories.

“When I was a teenager I used to drive out there and just sit and think, it was so peaceful,” Rector remembers.

That was long before The Villages changed the region from a rural backwoods into a bustling retirement mecca where golf carts far outnumber old pickup trucks and chain restaurants crowd out the mom-and-pop roadhouses that once characterized the area.

And while some area residents complain about traffic jams and seasonal “snowbirds” who crowd area restaurants, almost everyone acknowledges the profound economic opportunities The Villages has created in the area.

Planner Greg Belliveau estimates the Villages of Fruitland Park will create more than 300 permanent full-time jobs, and that’s not counting hundreds of construction jobs during the buildout.

Rector estimates that impact fees, permit fees and the like will add more than $13 million to the city’s bottom line, and city property tax revenues will double.

“The Villages is well known as one of the best developers in Florida,” Rector said. “Some of us would like to see the Pine Ridge Dairy site remain a pasture and a peanut farm, but that’s not realistic. We’re way better off with the Villages of Fruitland Park than we would be with a hodgepodge of neighborhoods by different builders and developers,” Rector explained.

Top city officials are working feverishly to prepare for the project now and the pace promises to pick up as The Villages works its way through a lengthy DRI development review and moves toward the construction phase.

“That’s when we get really, really busy,” Rector said, his brow furrowing.

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