It may be Orange County’s second-largest city, but in preparing for the future, Apopka is playing a game of catchup.
- Apopka is trying to catch up with unprecedented growth
- Development projects include new hospital, Wekiva Parkway sections
- JUMP TO INTERACTIVE: A look at the evolution in Apopka
Florida’s population is growing, 9.6 percent since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Apopka’s growth rate, meanwhile, is surpassing cities of Tampa and Orlando at 18.5 percent.
“For many years prior to this, the city of Apopka grew and grew and didn’t invest in its infrastructure," said city spokesman Robert Sargent. “The city is working double-time to bring up the infrastructure. We’re having to bite the bullet."
Now, development is reshaping a place many thought they already knew.
Apopka, which began as an agrarian community — then known as the indoor foliage capital of the world, and later as a hotspot for chain restaurants such as McDonald's and KFC — is undergoing a makeover. It's pumping more than $2 million into the downtown district, resurfacing parking lots and store facades.
"It’s to bring businesses downtown and create jobs, so if you have a healthy downtown, you have a healthy city," explained James Hitt, the city's community redevelopment director. "We want to revitalize our downtown, and this is the first step."
The projects extend far past Main Street.
Apopka is hoping to transform and revitalize downtown with a $2 million investment that will attract retail shops and other businesses. (Rendering courtesy of city of Apopka)
The city is also investing $60 million into getting its wastewater treatment facility, located off East Cleveland Street, up to snuff.
It's building two new fire stations, Nos. 5 and 6, for the first time in 10 years, which the city says will reduce response times in the fast-growing areas of the city by up to six minutes.
New roadways, such as the $1.6 billion Wekiva Parkway project, will come online. The first two sections, between U.S. 441 and Kelly Park Road, opened in July, and three more sections will open in the spring, completing a loop around Orlando.
And a massive investment — a new Florida Hospital Apopka — opens in coming weeks.
“It’s really transformational in terms of providing health care to this community. This level of access has never been out here," the hospital's Tim Cook said. “People were driving for basic surgeries, basic diagnostic testing. Now with this facility, they’ll all be able to do it right here at home.”
Cook said that the 120 patient rooms will double capacity of their existing Park Avenue location, while more than a dozen intensive-care rooms, surgical suites and cath labs will allow patients to access cutting-edge technology.
“When you see this building, which is the tallest building in Apopka, you know you’re in Apopka," Cook said. "It will really be an iconic image for the growth and the progress of this community.”
But, with development comes growing pains.
Madeline Spencer lives in Emerson Park, the several-hundred-home community located in the shadow of the new hospital.
“I think we were here about a year and the noise started. ... banging those things into the ground, day after day," she said. “The city has been using these private roads and running their trucks over it. When we moved in, there was no hospital across the street, and we were way out in the country.”
Despite some qualms about how growth sounds, Spencer, who has lived in Apopka for the past eight years, said she's pleased. She loves her neighborhood and knows the value of her home is on the rise.
“When you’ve got more development, your property value goes up," she said. “Between (State Road) 429 being down the street and (State Road) 414 being behind us, this is a very valuable property.”
She just wishes for a few more choices.
“We would like to have more shopping. We have to drive to Winter Garden," she said. “We’d like to have some decent restaurants to eat at besides two Chili’s."
Apopka conducted did a study in 2015, calling on neighbors and businesses to help craft its vision for the future of the city. According to Sargent, many said they want more commercial development, places to eat and shop.
In the meantime, Apopka’s updating its land development codes and comprehensive plans to control its growth.
“As we continue to grow at this pace, we need to plan for the future," Sargent said.
The city says it will keep diversifying industry as it grows. For example, encouraging high-tech company Qorvo, which makes chips in cell phones, to expand and hire 100 more people for high-wage positions.
Because growth isn’t just coming — it’s already here.
“We can either let that growth come through here and control us, or we can control it," Sargent said.