Winter Park seems like a strange name for a city in the central part of Florida. I was intrigued to find out why, but first I discovered that this was an area which was a major attraction for businesses and people alike. This is a city that is expanding in many areas, including healthcare, tourism and scientific and technical services. Economic development is of paramount importance, as the city strives to target and expand business clusters…
Business in Focus spoke with Manager Kyle Dudgeon and Coordinator Lindsey Hayes of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency Department to find out more.
Winter Park was chartered in 1887 and incorporated in 1925. The founders were Loring Chase and Oliver Chapman, who showed up in 1881 and saw the area’s potential. They noted that the railroad tracks would be a windfall to the area, so they bought six hundred acres and planned the town. This plan, which was drawn up in 1881, is largely how the town is today.
Why is it called Winter Park? The two founders were from Chicago and involved in real estate. The two were wintering in Florida for health reasons and planned to market this town. “The plan was to market the town to northerners who wanted to escape the cold winters. This was a place to enjoy a park-like setting in the winter,” explains Kyle.
Winter Park has many attractions. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art houses the largest collection of the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany, a comprehensive collection of American art pottery, stained glass windows and lamps, and a wide array of nineteenth and twentieth century American paintings.
Rollins College boasts the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. There are also a slew of performance venues including the Winter Park Playhouse and smaller theatre groups. The Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens is located on the shore of Lake Osceola and features guided tours of the world-renowned Czech-American sculptor’s home and studio, his exquisite works of art, and three acres of serene gardens as well as the restored 1885 Capen House. “The Polasek welcomes visitors from all over the world to to enrich lives through the power of inspiration conveyed by the STORY, SETTING and ART of our founder, artist Albin Polasek,” invites Executive Director Debbie Komanski.
“One of our biggest cultural events is the Winter Park Sidewalk Arts Festival, which takes place every March and draws somewhere in the area of 300,000 people. It fills the Central Park area of the city from edge to edge, with a juried selection of national artists,” says Lindsey.
The Sidewalk Arts Festival is repeated on a slightly smaller scale in the fall with the Autumn Art Festival. The focus here is on Florida-based artists, and it pulls in a large number of people. Many tourists flock to the downtown area of Park Avenue. It is quite chic and maintained beautifully, with planter beds overflowing with flowers. There are also a great collection of restaurants and unique shops. Public Art Advisory Board member Jan Clanton said, “There are so many things that can make a city an outstanding community. History, charm, traditions and character are all important. What makes Winter Park so outstanding is its embrace of the cultural arts. The arts go to the ‘soul’ of a community. Winter Park has prioritized the arts and in so doing marked our city as visionary.”
“It’s really authentic as well as very pretty. It highlights some of the historic preservation efforts underway in Florida. Due to the nature of this state, and with its hurricanes, things tend to get turned over a lot more quickly than in other parts of the country. A lot of our city has really stood the test of time,” says Kyle.
The enhancement of community culture, character and livability is seen as a necessary part of Winter Park. The greater downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and there are several individual landmark properties on the National Register. The residents are quite passionate about preserving the character of this city. The Keep Winter Park Beautiful and Sustainable Advisory Board works on enhancement projects.
The city offers business facade enhancement grants to help encourage existing businesses to improve appearance. Picking up half the cost makes it very appealing to some of the older businesses in particular. Mike Lombardi, owner of Lombardi’s Seafood said, “Working with the City of Winter Park and their ED team couldn’t have been easier. They have a fundamental understanding of the importance of new investment and creative ways of helping businesses grow. We can’t wait to partner again!”
Winter Park is a green-minded community that looks to conserve energy, have community gardens and reduce carbon emissions. The Transportation Advisory Board augments this by taking a strong role in making sure that the city continually improves pedestrian connections and the region’s bicycle riding capacity.
“This goes back all the way to the original plan. Once you park downtown, you don’t have to get into your car to get where you need to go. Everybody involved has worked hard to make sure that there is a constant mobility balance,” says Lindsey. This is a bicycle-friendly community awarded at the bronze level by the League of American Bicyclists.
Winter Park’s beginnings as a health-promoting destination continue today with its healthcare services on offer. “I am a Gen-Y person, but it seems nowadays that we are all Gen-H (Generation Health). Winter Park really has a great infrastructure for healthcare. Already it is our second-largest employment sector, second only to our great restaurant industry,” states Kyle.
The city’s healthcare sector is expected to grow. The city has just completed the first part of an update to a state requirement for a comprehensive city plan. The revised plan includes a medical arts district. The state will review it, and Lindsey has no reason to think that it would be turned down. The Winter Park Memorial Hospital is also looking to reposition itself in the community. This repositioning is not just as a hospital but as part of a grand design which is working toward integrating with the community.
A business cluster study was performed, and the information will be put to good use. “Monitoring the economic climate is something that we try to position ourselves very proactively on. You really can get a lot of information from data, but one of the overarching things that we need to say is that Winter Park is just a great place for jobs,” says Kyle.
One of the tidbits of information that came from the cluster study is that, per capita, Winter Park has double the national average of jobs per thousand in the country. There are almost three hundred businesses here that have been in operation for twenty-five years or more. This is a remarkable number for a city of 29,308. The companies that come here grow and stay here because they are successful here. In turn, the city is successful as a whole. Betsy Gardner Eckbert, Chamber of Commerce President and CEO said, “One of Winter Park’s greatest assets is its village scale and charm. As the world becomes more global, we know that engagement with the ultra-local becomes even more valuable. We are thrilled to provide a high-touch set of solutions for businesses looking to connect, to be informed and to stay ahead of the curve both locally and globally.”
“Another reason they stay is because we offer a high level of service for a small city. Police, fire and utility offerings here provide an exceptional level of service for a small city. Partly because of that level of service and partly due to the quality of life, a Winter Park address comes with a level of status. Whether it is a private residence or a business, they want that Winter Park address,” claims Lindsey.
“We see an economic trend presently. There is a need here for Class A office space. Our vacancy rate on Class A office space is under one percent. Vacancy as a whole, both for retail and office, is well under five percent, which is extremely healthy. Once again, we can look to our professional, scientific and technical service industries, that are finding success here,” says Kyle.
The city is a transportation hub right next to Interstate 4. It has a commuter rail line that includes the SunRail commuter rail and Amtrak. The city is thirty to thirty-five minutes from the Orlando International airport. There is a multitude of transportation connections and options.
Foodies will appreciate Winter Park’s own restaurant rows. In addition to Park Avenue there is an adjacent neighborhood called Hannibal Square, and there are close to twenty restaurants within this small stretch. They are unique, locally-owned businesses and many have been here for over twenty-five years. You can get anything from American to Continental or even something a little different such as Turkish food or organically grown fare.
“We’ve got a business called Boca that produces a lot of their products locally. When you walk in, there is a big lettuce wall which they use to cook with every day,” says Kyle. “After a nice meal, you’re directly adjacent to some of our other local retail merchants, or you’re perusing shop windows. These things make for a very successful environment for doing business.”
In a number of ways, economic development is an interesting field that stretches into both the arts and sciences. It needs to in order to handle businesses’ unique issues. The business of a manufacturing firm is not the same as that of a software company. Economic development needs to be capable of covering that full spectrum.
The economic development covers everything from businesses that need additional space to providing high-quality public infrastructure and ensuring that the employees of these growing firms have places to live. “We don’t really have anything other than anecdotal information on this, but if we took a poll, we would have an unusually higher portion of CEOs that live in Winter Park, that work for places like Disney due to the work/play/life triangle exemplified here,” explains Kyle.
The city is renowned for its professional, scientific, technical and creative services. Winter Park houses a full spectrum of everything from residential construction firms to software and social media managers. People come here and stay, which implies that they are successful.