Fla.’s Small Towns Deal with Population Growth

APOPKA, Fla. – On Friday nights, Three Odd Guys Brewing in Apopka fills up pretty fast. 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 that capturing the neighborly spirit of the city led them to start the business.

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

While population growth has been steady in Apopka for about the past six decades, demand for homes throughout Central Florida has started bringing more new residents to the area quickly. Now, once-rural Apopka is fast becoming one of the most attractive prospects for developers and buyers.

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

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

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

“People drive straight 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 tight-knit kinship among the town he grew up in. “I personally see it as more of a negative than a positive,” he said. “The rapid growth just inhibits that lifestyle that we liked.”

Gateway to Central Florida

From 1990 to 2020, Apopka grew from 13,611 residents to 54,874, an increase of just over 400%, according to the U.S. Census. Over that same 30 years, the city added just under 15,000 new households. According to a list of projects that are either approved or in construction, the city is about to add more than half that number of housing units in the next of couple years, bringing in the potential for 22,000 new residents.

Home prices are also shooting up, going 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 time went from 1,172 to 1,782, a 52% increase.

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

Future developments range from small single-family subdivisions to major mixed-use projects, such as The Floridian Town Center at the north end of the city, the Ridge at Lake Bronson, and the Apopka City Center at U.S. Highway 441 and State Road 436.

Hitt, who first moved to Apopka in 1992, is an unapologetic advocate for his town. “It’s the gateway to Central Florida,” he said, noting that many travelers pass through Apopka on U.S. Route 441 on their way to Orlando.

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

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

Hitt is the one who suggested the location for Three Odd Guys, in a small strip mall across the street from a parking lot in an area most locals never thought would be developed. “No one 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, new developments offer the promise of something akin to the Main Street districts in Orlando, pockets of entertainment and dining options with their own character that will give residents options in town.

But development can be slow going. The City Center, which will include apartments, a brewery and food hall, and a state-of-the-art Winn Dixie, was approved in 2016, but only broke ground in February.

Three-stoplight town

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

The son and namesake of a long-serving Apopka High School principal with a street named after him, Williams couldn’t imagine the roads in Apopka ever getting that crowded when he was growing up. “I say we were a two-stoplight town, but technically it was three,” he said.

Jessica Horne was born in Apopka in 1989. She said even then it was significantly less crowded. “You could go into Rock Springs, you could leave for lunch, and get back in,” she said. “Now, you have to line up at four in the morning to get into Rock Springs or Wekiva Springs or any of them. And if you leave, you’re out.”

What most travelers don’t see while passing through are the people, Williams said. “We kind of have the look of that typical Florida sprawl town,” he said. “But those types of sprawl places don’t have that sense of community we have. I’m afraid if it gets too big, we’re going to lose that.”

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

Hitt says such a deep, personal connection to the community likely won’t survive the coming growth. “It’s hard to keep it cohesive when you have that much of an influx,” he said.

The planned developments are also bringing 3,103 multifamily units, increasing the number of renters in the area. As renters tend to be more transient, Williams worried that might also fray the community.

But Hitt counters that many of those renters will wind up becoming permanent residents. “Those people that are renting end up buying somewhere,” he said. “They aren’t going to rent forever.”

Hitt says the city is providing the means for people to stay involved with each other. For example, the Northwest Recreation Complex with the Apopka Amphitheater features concerts on Saturdays that draw in crowds of thousands. “By just having that complex, that’s stuff for kids right there,” he said.

He’s also excited for new offshoots of the West Orange Trail for cyclists to get around in the city, hoping the new paths might bring the kind of success the trail brought to burgeoning downtown Winter Garden.

A need for more

Horne, who moderates an Apopka-oriented Facebook page, applauds the new businesses and the recreation opportunities, but she says more is needed. “A lot of people are coming here, but what are we giving them?” she said. “More of it has come, but there needs to be more. So many people go outside of Apopka for entertainment.”

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

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

“I think it was coming,” he said. “Had I not started the run club, someone else would have.”

On Sundays, Propagate hosts a brunch on an outdoor patio section, something of a novelty to residents Marisa and Sean Dongilli, who moved to Apopka from Oviedo a year ago. Both in their 20s, they were visiting the coffeehouse for the first time recently.

“We live, like, five minutes away,” said Marisa, a teacher at Lovell Elementary. She said they thought about going to Winter Park, but decided to check out a local place instead. “This is our first time here, and we’ve just been talking about how we’re going to come back.”

Sean Dongilli says the city has been hard to get into. “When you’re driving around Apopka, it feels old and …”

“Kinda sketchy,” his wife said, finishing his sentence.

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

© 2022 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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