DELTONA — Plans in hand, Jerry Robson stood with his back to an open field where cows and donkeys graze. Welcome to Deltona Village.
Nearby, the Epic Theatres have attracted crowds since 2011, but the only other action for the planned mixed-use site on 150 acres near the Interstate 4 interchange at Howland Boulevard has played out on its movie screens. Nowhere to eat or shops— unless you want buttery popcorn or fake tattoos from the cinema's lobby.
Like any film though, the story isn't over until the credits roll, and Robson, a real estate broker over the project, expects the plot (of land) to thicken soon. The arrival of new medical centers — and the prospect of more to come — means new jobs. And new jobs, in a city of 90,000 where nearly half go elsewhere for work, is an attractive feature to potential businesses.
"It's really time for this area," Robson said last week.
City officials think so too. For years they've watched neighboring areas to the west along I-4 swell with development and growth. Now there's a sense that Seminole and Orange County are running out of real estate.
"Deltona has been playing a waiting game, more or less. It’s not that we aren’t ready, they (developers) weren't ready," said Jerry Mayes, the city's economic development director. "We've just been waiting for (those areas) to reach a saturation point.
"Now, people are looking at Deltona."
Across from the village, Halifax Hospital opened an emergency department in 2016 and has plans to build a 94-bed hospital on the same location by 2019. Combined, that means about 250 new jobs.
There's a Wawa convenience store coming to the northeast corner of Halifax Crossing and Howland boulevards, and a Burger King coming to the southwest corner of Howland and Forest Edge Drive, adjacent to the RaceTrac convenience store.
Robson says he's received interest from some not-yet-named "junior box" chains that would occupy a space in Deltona Village between 20,000 and 60,000 square feet.
"We are talking to a few grocery store concepts, some discount clothing retailers, sporting supply concepts," he said.
In a later email, he provided even more examples of what might wind up on the property: fast food, fast casual, coffee shops, barber shops, nail salons, sit-down restaurants, auto retailers, banks, pet stores.
"As of now, the vision for the north triangle on the site plan is for hotels and office/medical office," he wrote.
All arrows point up for Volusia County's most populous city.
"It's very exciting times right now," said Chris Bowley, Deltona's planning director. "I think it will take off. Once that employment center is in place for that hospital, you will see every other type of land-use move in."
But then again, leaders have said that before. For about two decades, growth has been anticipated not just for the 150 acres where the cinema sits, but for the nearly 1,800 acres of vacant land on both sides of the I-4 interchange at State Road 472, where Deltona, Orange City, DeLand and unincorporated Volusia County adjoin. Aside from the theater, nothing has happened.
"It's been very frustrating," said Deltona resident and former councilwoman Pat Northey, noting the boom that's already occurred in Seminole County's stretch of I-4. "We were hoping the Lake Mary miracle could happen there in Southwest Volusia. There’s a lot of land there that has a lot of promise for development, and it just didn’t happen. It just didn't happen."
Stifled by a deal?
Deltona Village has been a vision since 2006. Robson attributes the slow start to the "downturn of the economy" and to a more vague reason: "Deltona just hasn't been the target for development."
But there could be other reasons.
What Deltona needs to successfully bring in more business is product, which consists of shovel-ready sites and office space, Keith Norden, CEO of Team Volusia, said during the city's commission meeting Monday.
"You always want to have product for your prospects," Norden said. "If Deltona doesn’t have product, they may go on to another area."
Dwight DuRant, Team Volusia chair, said Deltona has lost out on opportunities because of the lack of shovel-ready land.
"It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing," DuRant said. "A landowner is not really interested in going out and spending thousands and thousands of dollars to go through the approval process and then come here and maybe get turned down."
Commissioner Mitch Honaker suggested the city put together a list of available sites and review them with Team Volusia as to what zoning changes or types of structures could help bring in development prospects.
For some, an agreement the county inked with DeLand and Deltona to attain commercial growth on some 1,800 acres may have actually done more harm than good. These partners established what became known as the Southwest Volusia Activity Center, envisioned as a center for jobs, with office buildings, commercial and retail development. It was established in conjunction with the state's Division of Community Affairs as a "DRI," or development of regional impact. These were done so that each government body could regulate the process as one entity, streamlining the process for lighting, design, stormwater, landscaping and a roadway networks.
Since that activity center formed though, the only real activity has been a DRI fallout. In 2010, Deltona revoked its end of the agreement, with officials speculating that too much regulation and red tape held back would-be developers. And then in 2015, Gov. Rick Scott eliminated the DRI process altogether, determining that the state should no longer be involved in regional growth efforts. The Volusia County Council voted to abandon the arrangement later that year, a decision they officially finalized on Jan. 18.
The county still isn't free from the red tape just yet. Now in order for the county to fully get out of the DRI, it has to submit an application to the Department of Economic Development and the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, which charges a fee of $2,500. Additionally, the County Council had to schedule a March 20 public hearing on the abandonment of the DRI.
A year after Deltona severed ties with the DRI, the long-awaited theater opened its doors. On the county's 442 acres within the DRI, developer Integra Dunes submitted an application for an apartment complex in October, but it's considered incomplete and has not begun the public hearing process, according to county documents.
In the end, the DRI was too complicated, and the timing just wasn't right.
"The DRI just wasn't successful," Deltona Mayor John Masiarczyk said. "It was before its time. It was a very complicated process ... and each city had a different vision for that property. The feeling was that we were losing potential development because of all the processes in place and hoops developers had to work through as part of the agreement."
Staff Writer Katie Kustura Contributed to this Report