While Leesburg is looking at a potentially huge windfall from the purchase of land by The Villages, some area residents are already pushing back against the deal.
City Manager Al Minner said switching to a residential model vs. the industrial model for the “470 Property” on the south end of the city, would be “a galactic switch” in the city’s thinking for the past 10 to 20 years during which an industrial Prince Charming never appeared with a slipper.
Minner said The Villages is the better suitor.
The $11.9 million pricetag would include the purchase of 1,938 acres of land, most of it at $7,000 per acre.
Minner said that Leesburg has missed out on residential growth in the past 15 years, with an anemic growth rate stuck at 2.67 percent.
“We have been trapped between two growth monsters,” Minner said. “They are The Villages and Orlando.”
In short, he said the city is looking at a $900 million gain if The Villages model is pursued, but only a $200 million if the city sticks with the industrial model.
Minner pointed out that in The Villages, the City of Leesburg would have a partner that has a well-earned reputation who offers “first class” development and someone who “does what they say they are going to do.”
The project would bring 4,500 homes to a new Villages section of Leesburg, along with commercial development and recreation opportunities including golf courses.
There would be a nine-month “due diligence period” and construction would not be expected to begin for five to seven years. The Leesburg property would be contiguous with the recently announced Villages’ development in Sumter County.
But area residents who attended a city commission meeting Monday night where The Villages’ proposal was presented, weren’t impressed.
Judy Martucci of Pennbrooke Fairways Homes said she has seen what The Villages has done when it comes to town.
She said the people of Wildwood years ago had enjoyed a farmers market within walking distance for residents.
“The Villages came in and took it away. Now it’s in Brownwood,” she said.
She also said the employment opportunities in The Villages aren’t as wonderful as some would have you believe.
She pointed at a young couple in the audience.
“He could get a job in a restaurant and she could get a job changing diapers, not on a baby, but an old person,” Martucci said.
Another resident of Pennbrooke Fairways Homes, who had looked at homes in The Villages before purchasing her home, shared Martucci’s concerns.
“I can now see The Villages from my property,” said Sandra Ogden. “I see houses and houses and houses.”
She said those homes have brought problems, including traffic.
“You’ll make money. But you will lose Leesburg,” she warned.
Mary-Megan Guinaugh, who grew up in Leesburg, offered a youthful voice in support of The Villages. She said she has benefitted from job opportunities in The Villages.
She works for CH2M Hill, the water company in The Villages. She said it’s a good job and she works hard.
“It could help Leesburg. Our plazas are not looking so good. It could help our schools,” she said.
Commissioner John Christian said he is worried about the lack of affordable housing for the people who would need to work in The Villages.
“Go across the tracks in Wildwood and see if those houses have improved. There are lots of nice houses in The Villages (in Wildwood), but not on the other side,” he said.
“For me, (affordable housing) is a deal breaker,” he said.
After a nearly four-hour meeting, commissioners split 4-1 on The Villages proposal with Christian the lone dissenter.
City leaders cautioned residents that signing the agreement did not make it a done deal.
“We become engaged to The Villages with this contract,” said Mayor Bob Bone. “But we’re not quite married to them.”