Orlando offers tax break to spark revival of empty plazas
By RYAN GILLESPIE
Apr. 07, 2018
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — In one of Orlando's oldest shopping districts, First Class Automotive on east Colonial Drive offers its customers a ride within five miles of the shop.
When it first opened 15 years ago, it was a given that customers would want to go across the street for a shopping trip to Orlando Fashion Square while crews worked on their cars. But with the decline of the mall, that's rare these days.
"Now it's a ghost town," said owner Nabil Armaly. "I'd love to see something new to bring people back . we need to have new things to bring people out to see what's going on outside their neighborhoods."
The mall is among several Orlando sites — including Magic Mall Plaza Orlando, Rosemont Plaza and an abandoned Kmart on Semoran Boulevard — the city has targeted for redevelopment through a new program offering a deep cut in property taxes.
Approved last month by the City Council, it awards developers a 50 percent city property tax refund over 10 years on new taxes generated by improvements.
"The goal of this program is to have full-scale redevelopment," Orlando's business development manager Sherry Gutch said. "(It's) not to just fix things up."
Recently city officials began talking with owners of the sites it has targeted, in hopes of drumming up interest.
Gutch said Orlando officials would like to see mixed-use developments that bring new restaurants, bars and shops to Fashion Square, which Tampa-based DeBartolo Development Co. is trying to purchase from The Bancorp, a lender. Attempts to reach DeBartolo and The Bancorp weren't successful.
Last year, Bancorp took over the mall from UP-Fieldgate US Investments. UP had big plans to improve the mall with new retailers and a hotel. While a new Dick's Sporting Goods opened, the hotel never came to fruition. Seritage Growth Properties is building an Orchard Supply Hardware and Floor & Decor on out parcels of the mall that until recently housed a Sears for five decades.
As interest in the mall has dwindled, Armaly has seen a drop in business at his shop that repairs imported vehicles as well as turnover at other neighboring stores.
In other neighborhoods along Colonial, new restaurants have helped bring in customers.
"Look at Mills (Avenue), they're building all kinds of new stuff around it that people want to go to," he said, adding that his stretch of Colonial "is just the same old thing."
While encouraged by renewed ideas to spark growth on the mall property, he's not sold that it will happen.
"I've been hearing a lot of talk and no action," Armaly said.
At Curry Ford Road and Semoran Boulevard, the surrounding neighborhood has grocery stores, restaurants and banks.
But it's also plagued by an empty shopping center that sits dormant with plywood where a door should be. It's been about 10 years since this former Kmart was an operating business, Gutch said.
Next door, Ken Green, a pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, said the new development could help the community, which he said has also seen improvements through a city program designed to lure customers into the district north of the airport.
"I am happy to see that the city is taking an interest in that property," Green said. "It's exciting to think of the opportunities."
If the program is successful, residents could benefit from affordable housing as well as new places to shop and eat, Gutch said. Each plan would be specific to the site and could require developers to meet green and design initiatives, as well as be connected to neighborhoods and trails.
"Some of these properties have tenants in them but aren't operating at full potential," Gutch said. "For the community, seeing the properties operate at full potential would be the biggest benefit."
Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/