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Turnaround on the Trail



Not long ago, life in Winter Garden, nine miles west and a time warp away from Orlando, still moved to old-time rhythms: Mr. Bray shuffling through the aisles of his hardware store; Joe Valdez straightening inventory in his Modern Stationery shop; leisurely biscuits-and-gravy breakfasts at the corner cafe; an old tug-and-grunt train hauling winter oranges along the tracks that bisect downtown tracks that have since been replaced with a stretch of recreational asphalt whose impact is evident everywhere.

Plant Street, the main drag, always was mom-and-pop. No boutiques -- except a short stint for a Merle Norman studio back in the early '70s -- and no bars but for Bernie's, where drinkers imbibed for 60 years, many advising, If my wife calls, tell her I'm not here.

In the 1970s, as in many small towns, that way of life deteriorated. Located just beyond Orlando's ring of fast-moving development, Winter Garden was hard hit as its younger generations moved away, and the malling of Central Florida dealt a death-blow to Plant Street, home to historical buildings that began to suffer from neglect.

Now, Winter Garden is changing again, and catching up. First, in numbers: in 1980, the town's population was 6,789; by last spring, it had nearly doubled. Second, in content: Bray's Hardware, for example, is now Downtown Brown's, a 1950s-style eatery complete with a soda fountain, Wurlitzer, hand-dipped ice cream and handmade pretties. The Modern Stationery building now houses three businesses: a sign shop, a crafts shop and the ABC Design Emporium.

Driving the changes are many factors, not least the continued expansion of nearby Disney World and Universal Studios, both of which are as close or closer to downtown Winter Garden as they are to downtown Orlando. But even as property development picks up on the edges, the town's heart is being transformed in no small part by the recent opening of the Winter Garden segment of the West Orange Trail, which replaced those defunct mid-town crossties with an asphalt artery alive with cyclists, joggers and skaters.

The trail head is located 5.5 miles west of Winter Garden, where a Bikes and Blades shop rents, sells and services bikes, inline skates, kids hook-ons and stroller items. The trail's next leg -- 14 miles -- is due to open in July and create a path north-northeast to Apopka.

"There's no question that the trail has had quite an impact on Winter Garden," says Karen Overstreet, a trail supervisor. "After all, it goes right through the middle of town. Stores -- especially those that open on Saturday and Sunday when the trail is the busiest -- are seeing an increase in business."

The trail averages about 42,000 users a month, and upward of 65,000 during cooler months. Users are mostly locals, and the trail is family-oriented, with playgrounds and picnic areas at both ends.

That dovetails nicely with the philosophy of Winter Garden's population and powers-who-be. For, although the town is changing, it is not relinquishing its laid-back identity; it may be catching up, but it refuses to run in the rat race.

"People are moving here from other parts of Orlando, tired of the traffic, the hustle and bustle," says Kim Dreyfus, program manager of Main Street Winter Garden and the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation. "Many are coming back to their roots. I've found that the city fathers and staff have the same mindset as our organization, so we've been able to work together to retain our unique little town. None of us wants to become a fast-growing metropolis. That type of growth serves a purpose for some areas, but our community does not want to mimic that at all."

City Manager Hollis Holden acknowledges the trail's impact. "The West Orange Trail has been tremendous in getting people out here to see what a nice place this is to live. Consequently, a number of old homes are being bought and restored by a lot of young professional families, and business inquiries for downtown have risen significantly."

Those inquiries have been mostly retail-oriented, rather than service, which is just what those in Winter Garden want.

"I get a lot of calls from people who'd like to open a business on main street," says Dreyfus. "Travel agencies. Full-serve restaurants. Somebody would like to turn the old tortilla factory into a bakery. An unusual one [opened in October] is a shop that will deal in race-car memorabilia."

Indeed, an eclectic mix of venues is evolving, places that invite browsing -- a railroad museum along with crafts, antiques and thrift shops alongside long-established, nuts-and-bolts businesses like Pound's Motor Company, Ellis Appliances and Shaw's Florist. The pole at Gary's barbershop has been turning for nearly 35 years; feeds and seeds have been sold from a rail-side store for 70 years.

"We are not going to compete with the mall; we look for market niches and to maintain our local merchants who have been here for years and years," says Dreyfus of Winter Garden's revitalization. "We're interested in businesses that are unique, that are not chain stores, and that you won't find in a mall."

That criteria certainly applies to ABC Design Emporium, which, as its brochure proclaims, is a little bit of everything, from home decor to floral and balloon design and special events.

Owner Brian Craig is a Winter Garden native who left town to earn a master's degree in theatrical design and production. He went on to run theater companies and design Rose Bowl parade floats, among other successes. His store is the result of a stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off epiphany.

The big thing was that my family lives here. Also, I've always wanted to open my own venue in this type of business. To make it what I want it to be, I've set high goals for myself and my shop. What better place to make it happen than in my hometown?

Can such an eclectic venue make it in small-town Winter Garden? Craig points out that small-town and small-mind are not synonymous. Local residents, and those beyond the town limits, both have found him.

But whereas the West Orange Trail had no bearing on his business plan, it did on the proprietors of Downtown Brown's. Claire and Eric Brown and their children moved to Winter Garden seven years ago. She has always worked as a waitress, and though he moonlights as a bartender at the Walt Disney World Dolphin, he has a degree in hotel and restaurant management.

"Our original idea was to put a healthy-food cart along the trail, but in Winter Garden a cart has to go on private property, not public," says Eric Brown. "So we started looking, which led us to retail locations. Although we hadn't thought about opening a restaurant, we found this building with all the basics. So, we started small, with a four-sandwich menu. Now there's an expanded menu, breakfast, retail items "

"We certainly wouldn't have pursued all this as actively if the trail wasn't going through, but as it's turned out, the majority of our traffic is local. The trail is a bonus, and we do enjoy considerable trail business on the weekend."

With the growth planned and in progress for Winter Garden, the Browns, who opened their shop just 18 months ago, are so confident of the town's direction, they hope to buy their building.

"Winter Garden is just getting better and better," says Brown.

Trail aside, the most unusual business story in town involves Plant Street's old Edgewater Hotel, circa 1923. Now home to Moonglow Productions, a film-production company, the edifice is well into a faithful restoration of epic proportions.

Moonglow provides support services for Universal Studios, "and studio space there was very limited," says Max Blanchard, a principal of Moonglow and representative of the consortium that owns the hotel. Their main focus is an aggressive and faithful restoration. A five-year project, with an expected finish date of 2000, the work is ahead of schedule, proceeding at the pace that often accompanies labors of love and passion. When completed, the first floor will include the Everglades Restaurant, named for its progenitor.

"A lot of things came into play: We were looking; there was a group of investors interested in preservation; a community welcomed us with opened arms; and the town's leadership went out of their way to help make a very complicated, very expensive project work," says Blanchard.

He stands gazing from a second-floor window. The West Orange Trail below is dim in the gloaming. "It's a dream " he says to the shadows

It is doubtful that the communities along the trail's northward march will experience the same boost. Mostly rural, with scattered residences, there simply is no business along the route to boost.

Also, Winter Garden enjoys a combination of circumstances enhanced by the trail: its main street, and thus the trail, lie between large, historic neighborhoods to the north and east and frenetic State Road 50, with its myriad fast-track businesses. Residents simply hit downtown Winter Garden before they get to the world beyond and will, therefore, avail themselves of main-street shops that meet their needs.

Mostly, though, the town has managed miraculously to cling to its small-town heritage. Winter Gardeners like to say that while a half-hour away the Walt Disney Co. is frantically constructing Celebration, theirs is the real McCoy.

"We have an original hometown," says Kim Dreyfus. "We don't have to contrive it."

Good trips

Flat-as-a-griddle Florida does not call to mind a challenging road terrain. But genuine hills, along with its people-driven charms, were enough to land Lake County on Bicycling magazine's list of "The 50 Best Trips on Our Planet." While cheering the concentration of "antique and art dealers in droll little wood-fronted stores," the magazine's March issue also observed: "You really haven't seen majesty until you see a pair of bald eagles take wing. Keep your eyes peeled; they're common here."

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