Florida’s small towns face population growth

APOPKA, Fla. — On Friday nights, Three Odd Guys Brewing in Apopka fills up pretty quickly. Co-owner Trod Buggs says it’s been that way since the place opened two years ago.

“Right away we opened our doors and people started coming in,” he said.

Three Odd Guys began with Buggs and his co-owners sharing beers in the driveway as neighbors. Buggs, who has lived in Apopka since 2003, says capturing the neighborhood spirit of the town led them to start the business.

“There are new people coming in every day, and they want to be as much a part of the community as someone who’s been here for 30 or 40 years,” Buggs said.

While population growth has been steady in Apopka for about six decades, demand for homes throughout Central Florida has begun to rapidly attract new residents to the area. Today, the once rural Apopka is fast becoming one of the most attractive prospects for developers and buyers.

Apopka is Orange County’s second largest city after Orlando, but most longtime residents don’t think of it that way.

“It was kind of what you would imagine a small rural southern town to be,” said Apopka native Roger Williams Jr.

For residents like Jay Kleinrichert, who moved here in 2020 and opened Propagate Social House last year, the challenge is to give newcomers things to do.

“People come right through here,” he said. “It’s not like Winter Park and Winter Garden where you can stop and walk around.”

Williams fears the loss of the close kinship between the town in which he grew up. “I personally see it more as a negative than a positive,” he said. “Rapid growth just inhibits that lifestyle that we loved.”

Gateway to Central Florida

From 1990 to 2020, Apopka grew from 13,611 to 54,874, an increase of just over 400%, according to the US Census. During those same 30 years, the city added just under 15,000 new households. According to a list of projects approved or under construction, the city is on track to add more than half that number of housing units over the next two years, bringing in a potential 22,000 new residents.

Home prices are also rising, from a median of $121,500 in 2012 to $324,950 last year, according to the Orlando Regional Realtor Association, $14,000 more than the median for Metro Orlando, which includes Apopka.

Home sales over the same period rose from 1,172 to 1,782, an increase of 52%.

“It’s definitely popping,” said Jim Hitt, the city’s director of community development. He points to major employers such as Coca-Cola, Goya and Amazon opening facilities near State Road 429, the Western Beltway, as one of the reasons for the growth. “Everyone has realized, especially in the industrial warehouse business, that we’re very well connected here for anything you want to do in Florida,” he said.

Future developments range from small single-family subdivisions to large mixed-use projects, such as Downtown Floridian on the north end of town, Ridge at Bronson Lake, and Downtown Apopka on the Hwy. American 441 and national road 436.

Hitt, who first moved to Apopka in 1992, is an unabashed defender of his city. “It’s the gateway to Central Florida,” he said, noting that many travelers pass through Apopka on U.S. Route 441 en route to Orlando.

It touts natural features such as Wekiwa Springs and Rock Springs, and its relative proximity to metro Orlando amenities such as theme parks and highways to the beach. Apopka is less than 20 miles from downtown Orlando.

But he acknowledges a dearth of attractions in the city proper. “We are working on a vibrant downtown,” he said.

Hitt is the one who suggested the location of Three Odd Guys, in a small mall across from a parking lot in an area most locals would never have imagined. “Nobody ever thought a parking lot could be a focal point,” he said. “It’s safe, it’s lit, it looks good and people feel safe coming downtown at night.”

For Hitt, the new developments offer the promise of something akin to Orlando’s Main Street neighborhoods, pockets of entertainment and restaurants with their own character that will give residents options in town.

But development can be slow. The town centre, which will include apartments, a brewery and dining hall, and a state-of-the-art Winn Dixie, was approved in 2016 but only opened in February.

City of three lights

Williams, 64, still remembers the first time he saw a line of cars not all passing the green light on the 441 about 20 years ago. “I thought, ‘This looks like a traffic jam. We just had a traffic jam! ”, Did he declare. “I called my mom and told her.”

The son and namesake of a longtime principal of Apopka High School with a street named after him, Williams could not have imagined Apopka’s roads would become so congested when he was growing up. “I say we were a town with two red lights, but technically it was three,” he said.

Jessica Horne was born in Apopka in 1989. She said even then there were far fewer people. “You can go to Rock Springs, you can leave for lunch and come back,” she said. “Now you have to line up at four in the morning to get into Rock Springs or Wekiva Springs or one of them. And if you leave, you’re out.

What most travelers don’t see in passing are the people, Williams said. “We kind of have the look and feel of this typical Florida sprawling town,” he said. “But those kinds of sprawling places don’t have that sense of community that we have. I’m afraid that if it gets too big, we’ll lose it.

Steve White, who opened Porky’s BBQ on the east side of town in 2003, remembers the time his power went out and the owner of a catfish restaurant brought him a portable cooler and stove. “People here are down to earth, just good people,” he said.

Hitt says such a deep personal connection to the community is unlikely to survive the growth to come. “It’s hard to keep cohesion when you have so much influx,” he said.

The planned developments are also bringing 3,103 multi-family units, increasing the number of tenants in the area. As tenants tend to be more transient, Williams feared it would also chip away at the community.

But Hitt counters that many of those tenants will eventually become permanent residents. “These people who rent end up buying somewhere,” he said. “They’re not going to rent forever.”

Hitt says the city provides people with the means to stay involved with each other. For example, the Northwest Recreation Complex with the Apopka Amphitheater offers concerts on Saturdays that draw thousands of people. “Just having that complex, it’s kid stuff out there,” he said.

He’s also excited about new offshoots of the West Orange Trail getting cyclists around the city, hoping the new trails will bring the kind of success the trail has brought to the booming downtown Winter Garden.

One more need

Horne, who moderates an Apopka-oriented Facebook page, applauds the new businesses and recreational opportunities, but she says more is needed. “A lot of people come here, but what do we give them?” she says. “More of that has come, but there has to be more. So many people come out of Apopka to be entertained.

Kleinrichert and his Propagate co-owners moved to Apopka from downtown Orlando in 2020. The cafe carries produce from Orlando-area bakers and roasters, as well as plants, most of which come from nurseries in ‘Apopka, always known as “indoor foliage”. capital of the world. »

Kleinrichert started a running club when he first moved to town, surprised to see that Apopka didn’t have one. In less than two years, it grew to 600 members, he said.

“I think it would come,” he said. “If I hadn’t started the running club, someone else would have.”

On Sundays, Propagate hosts brunch on an outdoor patio section, new to residents Marisa and Sean Dongilli, who moved from Oviedo to Apopka a year ago. Both in their twenties, they were visiting the cafe for the first time recently.

“We live about five minutes away,” said Marisa, a teacher at Lovell Elementary. She said they thought about going to Winter Park, but decided to visit a local spot instead. “It’s our first time here and we just talked about how we’re going to come back.”

Sean Dongilli says the town was difficult to break into. “When you drive around Apopka, you feel old and…”

“A bit sketchy,” his wife said, finishing her sentence.

“But more places like this really lift it,” he said.

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