It’s unlike any other city in Florida. Downtown Winter Garden has the authentic vibe of small-town America, yet has integrated trendy dining and shopping options with family-friendly local attractions like the West Orange Trail and its impressive farmers market.
Winter Garden’s seemingly meteoric rise from blight to bustle has been anything but. Its masterful transformation was two decades in the making and required a gutsy vision and dogged commitment that other cities would find difficult to broach, let alone maintain. While other city governments floundered to find direction, Winter Garden officials stepped up with progressive planning, and its elected officials consistently supported the vision resulting in the vibrant Winter Garden of today.
Ironically, from 1960 to 1989, Winter Garden, located 14 miles west of downtown Orlando and a one-time hub for the citrus industry, was in a blighted decline with80% of its downtown space unoccupied. In 1998 the West Orange Trail connected downtown Winter Garden to other communities and it became a popular destination for bicyclists. The city’s big boom began in 2007, a period when other cities were struggling economically nationwide. By 2012, Winter Garden’s infrastructure investments paid off when the once-blighted downtown business district boasted a 95 percent occupancy rate.
Fast forward to today and Winter Garden’s solid brand is secured with nearly two dozen eateries, a thriving Farmer’s Market, quaint and trendy shops, a brewery and community market and numerous lifestyle assets surrounded by historic or historically-inspired architecture. Mount Dora Buzz sat down with City Manager Michael Bollhoefer for a candid conversation about the secrets of Winter Garden’s success and what lies ahead.
1. critical groundwork
Bollhoefer was quick to cite a few critical first steps that began over two decades ago that helped the city prepare for launch.
In 1992, Winter Garden established a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to gain the tools needed to foster and support the redevelopment of the Downtown Historic District. The goal of the CRA is to promote sustainable economic growth and improve the commercial viability and residential livability of neighborhoods within the area through projects like streetscaping, parks, parking, infrastructure improvements, street trees and landscaping.
1994 - Engaged in collaboration with Main Street America.
In 1996 Winter Garden’s Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This qualified properties for tax incentives to preserve the district. This is a significant milestone because vibrant business districts and quaint neighborhoods improve property values and quality of life. This in turn helps attract quality new businesses and industries to Winter Garden because they are able to lure and retain top talent at companies.
1997-1998 - The West Orange Trail was built through downtown Winter Garden which connected it to other communities and made it a popular destination.
2. a passionate visionary
ABOVE: Crooked Can Brewery
Like all prosperous rebirths, Winter Garden’s sustained success required a steady, driving force. For the City, that has been the focused guidance of Bollhoefer, Winter Garden’s longtime City Manager. He is quick to point out the initial groundwork for the city’s rebirth was done prior to his tenure and he humbly downplays his own importance. However, the results of his vision and policies as well as the praise of those around him say otherwise. City Managers typically have a tenure of two to five years at any given city due to changes in political climate as new city officials are elected. However, Bollhoefer has survived and even thrived under new commissions.
“The City’s success aside, his tenure alone is a testament to his expertise,“ said Amy Martello, Bollhoefer’s Executive Assistant.
Under his leadership the City waived impact fees and assisted with parking to ensure the development of Plant Street Market and Crooked Can Brewery where a rundown apartment complex once stood and is now a destination for residents and visitors.
Bollhoefer’s rise was serendipitous. He joined the City of Winter Garden in 1996 as a temporary employee. At that time the downtown was a shadow of the vibrant place it is today. Eventually, Bollhoefer worked his way up to Finance Director before becoming the City’s top administrator.
3. focus and commitment
ABOVE: Award-winning Winter Garden Farmers Market
Winter Garden’s strategic vision is to be the best small city in the state of Florida. These aren’t just words or a pie-in-the-sky dream, but rather a goal with a sound strategy that requires progressive planning, buy-in from residents, and the foresight and courage of elected commissioners to make thoughtful, difficult decisions to invest in their downtown.
The long-term vision for Winter Garden is to create an authentic place where people want to be. To date, that’s been achieved by making brave choices to continually invest in their community, so private investment will follow. The City also strives to provide the highest quality of life for residents by working diligently to practice sound fiscal management, hire top talent and continually provide quality services. All of these elements increase property values, which results in an increase in tax revenues. That is what is used to pay down the debt necessary for downtown Winter Garden’s strategic redevelopment.
To attract more young families and professionals into residential areas, Winter Garden builds local destinations like its splash pad, Farmers Market and the upcoming new downtown park. In alignment with its goal to attract families, Winter Garden has no businesses that are strictly bars, but rather requires the establishments to be restaurants with bars.
4. high design standards
Downtown Winter Garden has been preserved, in large part, due to its high architectural design standards and attention to details. In some cities, high standards result in project delays and frustrated developers. Not so in Winter Garden. Rather than simply deny a good project or place the burden solely on the developer, the City has provided designers to collaborate with developers in order to meet Winter Garden’s lofty requirements while preventing unnecessary delays. The result is a win-win for the City and the developer.
However, Winter Garden strictly adheres to development rules that ensure buildings fit in with and complement its historic downtown. As a result, the City has turned away developers seeking to build five- and six-story buildings. Interestingly, there are no buildings taller than three stories in the entire city, not just downtown, with the exception of the six-story hospital. Even in the new, larger shopping areas like WInter Garden Village, the architectural design standards are high.
To complement the downtown area’s architecture, the City allocates resources for beautiful landscaping and preservation of its mature oak canopy. It’s no accident that visitors are frequently seen snapping photos of the flowering, cascading vine that envelops the arbors around the fountain on the center median of Plant Street.
5. good public schools
ABOVE: Splash Pad in downtown Winter Garden
In order to attract young families and companies to an area, good public schools are critical. Winter Garden is fortunate to have A and B rated public schools.
6. continual redevelopment
ABOVE: The entrance to downtown Winter Garden on Plant Street
Bollhoefer steadfastly believes in continual redevelopment and that public investment in the community is necessary to attract private investment. These core principles have had impressive results for Winter Garden’s downtown, including successful public-private partnerships and a waiting list for commercial space and residential apartments. Some of downtown’s key redevelopment projects include:
2000-2003 - The $7 million streetscape improvements done during the summer months which included infrastructure, brick streets, wider sidewalks and other details.
2008 - Downtown’s new construction boom included a $10 million City Hall, Garden Theatre, Garden Building and 132 Plant Street Building.
2009 - The completion of the Boyd Street parking lot.
2011 - The opening of the public $250,000 Splash Pad located a stone’s throw from restaurants, shops and the weekly Farmers Market.
2011 - The completion of the 5,000 square-foot Pavilion which serves as part of the Winter Garden Farmers Market.
2015 - The opening of Plant Street Market and Crooked Can Brewery that replaced a run-down apartment complex. It’s now a popular destination for residents from across Central Florida.
2016 - The completion of the three-level, 526-space parking garage.
22 neo-traditional Tremaine Boyd apartments with restaurant and retail on the ground floor.
The award-winning Park Place at Winter Garden townhome development.
7. brand integrity
Winter Garden's authentic small-town brand is built on being a place people and families want to be. Its architectural details, high quality of life and downtown attractions are just some of its features that have built solid brand integrity:
The West Orange Trail runs through the center of downtown WinterGarden and has made it a cycling destination that draws an estimated 100,000 visitors a month.
The award-winning Farmers Market draws 6,000 people every Saturday and serves as a business incubator. It has become a top reason why people decide to move to the City.
The Garden Theater opened in 2008. The 9818 square feet venue has 299 seats, is programmed 365 days a year and draws 60,000 visitors a year.
Plant Street Market and the Crooked Can Brewery is a destination and gathering spot for young families and professionals.
The splash pad provides a refreshing family activity right in the center of downtown.
Fridays on the Plaza is a family-friendly weekly event featuring live music and local artists.
Winter Garden Heritage Museum connects residents and visitors to the city's past with comprehensive exhibits.
Winter Garden’s leaders want to sustain momentum by remaining focused on economic development, continual redevelopment, fiscal responsibility, housing, gateways, and the nurturing of public-private partnerships. These new projects will continue to sustain the city’s enviable momentum for the near future:
A proposed new three-story, 60-room boutique hotel is now in the works, as well as a new City park opposite the Plant Street Market.
Additional public parking near Plant Street Market as a result of swapping out property for the existing ball field.
Construction to begin in early 2020 of a new park across from Plant Street Market that will be designed for special events.
Improved gateways into Winter Garden.
Bollhoefer shared the main lessons he learned along the way, in case other cities wish to follow in Winter Garden’s big footsteps. His suggests for cities to have a clear vision, invest in downtown historic district, do the critical ground work, make architecture a priority, hire the best consultants, redevelopment never ends and it’s all about the details, details, details.
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