ABOVE: Lakeside in from Lake Dora. (Mount Dora Buzz photo)
He is one of Mount Dora’s largest stakeholders, yet one that keeps a relatively low profile. Jim Gunderson, owner of Lakeside Inn, doesn’t crave the spotlight, but the Mount Dora resident and businessman doesn’t shy away from addressing important community issues.
Gunderson has been in the tourism industry for almost 40 years, including a stint with Marriott and over 20 years at The Naples Beach and Golf Club. In 2010, Gunderson and his wife, Alexandra, purchased the historic 90-room inn and began the arduous task of its renovation.
Lakeside Inn, set on over five acres of lakefront property in downtown Mount Dora, is the oldest continuously operated hotel in Florida and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although the couple’s restoration efforts are endless, the biggest project in 2021 will be rebuilding its scenic dock that suffered damage during Hurricane Irma.
Because he is one of the biggest property owners in the city’s downtown, Mount Dora Buzz sought Gunderson’s input on the City's economy and the proposed increase to Mount Dora’s building heights.
BUZZ: Tourism has long been the economic engine of Mount Dora. What are Mount Dora's greatest tourism assets? GUNDERSON: Certainly the historic downtown and the lake are huge assets. While few visitors actually take a boat ride on the lake, most certainly like to look at the lake. Guests that enjoy walking love going for a walk down to the boardwalk and exploring Palm Island. The tour operators are a huge asset. The boat rides, Segway tours, the tram service, all have great guides that serve as fantastic ambassadors for the city. The history of the city and the area is a huge asset - I'm positive we are not doing as much as we should, as a community, to leverage that strength. The other big miss is the underutilization of the Community Building.
BUZZ: What draws your guests to Mount Dora? What changes, if any, have they expressed that they would like to see downtown? GUNDERSON: I have yet to meet a guest that has expressed to me their desire for taller buildings in the downtown area of Mount Dora. What I do, however, hear quite regularly from our guests is a real fear that we might ruin the downtown through our efforts to improve it. Most of the guests that I meet are coming from much larger communities and cities that have experienced massive growth in the past 10 to 20-plus years. For them, the scale of our downtown is refreshing. Rarely do I hear comments about the need for “more,” as in more shops or more dining options. Even comments regarding the quality of offerings in the downtown are seldom heard anymore. Those types of comments have really died down in recent years with the arrival of many of the new shops and new restaurants. While there will always be room for improvement, things do appear to be moving in a steady, positive direction.
BUZZ: Mount Dora typically has an approximate November-to-Easter tourism season. What do you feel could extend the length of the season to increase revenues? GUNDERSON: I don't think extending the tourism season beyond the historic fall - spring is as complicated today as it was in Florida 30-plus years ago. The sheer population increase in the state has created a far greater opportunity for improved year-round visitation. Weekday visitation in July may not be as strong as in March, but weekends, for us, are just as busy. Room rates come down a bit, but that too is changing. The summer weather is the biggest challenge. That said, it is also very predictable, which means we can work around it. Outdoor activities need to be done in the morning and completed by 2 p.m. I think long-time Floridians understand that fact and plan their day accordingly. I do believe that extending the season can be accomplished if there is a collective and dedicated focus - activities and events that keep us in the minds of residents throughout the state.
BUZZ: What is the best way to keep downtown Mount Dora economically sustainable? GUNDERSON: The economic driver of the downtown is clearly tourism - it always has been. In tourism and tourism marketing, “bigger and more” is not always in the best interest of the destination. I tend to ignore the comments that begin with "...what we really need is," as I find those to be generally personal wish lists. I think as a downtown and surrounding community we need to look inward - focus on who we are and what we provide, then dominate that space. Attempting to pack more business into the downtown on a Friday night and all day Saturday from November through March is not a strategy. If we want year-round, week-long success in the downtown, we're going to need to readjust some of our thinking - a bit of a refocus.
BUZZ: Mount Dora's Planning & Zoning Commission will vote whether to increase downtown building heights to 55 feet. As a downtown property owner, what would be the short- and long-term effects on your downtown Mount Dora investment if such an ordinance passes? GUNDERSON: Raising the building heights in the downtown to 55 feet will certainly be good for the Gundersons, but I'm not yet convinced that it would be good for the community. Not all of our property here at the Inn is bound by historic buildings, so a change in the height limitations will allow any new structures we might plan to become significantly higher. As a hotel, that opens the door to various possibilities, thus increasing the value of the property, etc. While it is difficult to develop retail and dining above ground level, it is not a big obstacle for hotels. I haven't yet been convinced, however, that it is in the long-term, best interest of the downtown to go higher.
BUZZ:After attending the City's Planning and Zoning Commision (P & Z) meeting in April on this issue, how do you feel about the process so far? GUNDERSON:I attended the recent planning & zoning committee meeting and was generally shocked and pretty disappointed in what I witnessed and experienced. The fact that one of the dedicated members of that committee--who is a longtime downtown business and property owner-- resigned his seat following that meeting out of sheer frustration demonstrates just how that committee appears to be used as merely a tool for an intended purpose. If that is all that stands between the residents and the possible forever-change to the character and make up our historic downtown - we're in trouble. This is a pretty big and permanent move and I suspect few people in Mount Dora know what is happening or what is being proposed. These proposed changes are real and the process is indeed moving forward with no real clear reason why. There were mumblings about economic viability, etc., with no concrete evidence or a detailed plan supporting that assertion. Personally, I don't consider a statement such as “Mount Dora needs this” to be a convincing argument. If we do need it, then certainly the residents can be convinced of that need and be allowed the opportunity to vote on such a significant building code change pertaining to the downtown and the lakefront.
BUZZ: What outcome do you hope for at the May 19 meeting? (Editor's note: After this interview was published, the item was pushed back from the May 19th meeting to the June 16 P & Z meeting) GUNDERSON: As for what is next, I would hope that anyone who is concerned and genuinely cares will take notice and attend the May P&Z meeting and/or reach out to the members of the city council and mayor in order to be heard. I'm not anti-growth or anti-development - I simply haven't heard a compelling argument supporting the need to change the current code as it relates to building heights in the downtown area or along the lakefront.
BUZZ: Would you support a referendum for voters to decide the issue if P & Z passes the downtown height increase? GUNDERSON: If there is a serious need to raise building heights, then create/develop a referendum which will allow the voting residents the opportunity to be educated and convinced. I'm sure if a compelling case is made, the residents will show their support through their vote.
BUZZ: Is there anything else you would like Mount Dora residents to know?
GUNDERSON: We all know and believe that Mount Dora is a great little community that has been reasonably well preserved and protected for decades. We could quickly and easily screw things up for those that will inherit this community from us 20, 30 or 40 years from now. Perhaps leaving things somewhat as they are is an even bigger mistake - if so, please convince me. I don't think it is too much to ask that the discussion be opened up and shared with the residents, so that there is a broad and general understanding of what is quietly being moved forward.