DELAND — Where Mary Lou and Pete Oatman live, they can walk to a clubhouse to go swimming, play pickleball, compete in trivia contests and eat in a cafe.
Just outside the gates of their 55-and-older community, Cresswind at Victoria Gardens, the Oatmans can get medical tests done, have a pet groomed and play golf — all within the massive, master-planned community of Victoria Park.
Less than two miles to the west, DeLand will soon be getting its first Starbucks and Chick-fil-A in a shopping center that also houses a new Publix, which will open Saturday. Growth on the south end of DeLand is bringing sweeping change to the town they have called home for more than five decades.
The city's population has grown by about 60 percent since 1999, when Victoria Park was approved, and its household median income outpaced Volusia County's over that span by more than 10 percent.
Those demographics have made the south end of DeLand more desirable to developers like Jim Gendreau, whose firm is behind the Publix-anchored complex at the corner of Orange Camp Road and South Woodland Boulevard.
"I do believe (Victoria Park) has certainly assisted us in making our development better. There's no doubt about it," said Gendreau, owner of Tailwinds Development of Orlando.
Gendreau cited other factors, including traffic on Woodland, also known as U.S. 17-92, and the city's small-town atmosphere, but said the rooftops from Victoria Park and other new developments to the east — plus room for more growth — were critical.
FROM CONCEPT TO COMMUNITY
Vernette Conrad and Carol Duchscher have had a hand in selling lots of those rooftops. They've been with Victoria Park since it was an idea on paper.
"When I first came here, there was an old farmhouse, cattle everywhere ... a lot of pasture land," said Duchscher, a project manager for Kolter Homes LLC, who was working for the original developer, Arvida in 1999, when the City Commission approved it.
Conrad, a Kolter sales associate, said she heard a complaint back then: "We destroyed the best turkey hunting land in the world."
When the city was debating its approval in 1999, there was no shortage of arguments against it. One letter-writer called it "an atrocity" that would harm the environment, ramp up traffic and deplete water supplies.
Steve Tonjes, a DeLand resident and planning board member, said most everyone had "mixed feelings" about Victoria Park.
"I'm a wildlife biologist. I hated to see that gorgeous sandhill community disappear," Tonjes said, noting that steps were also taken to protect species including scrub jay and gopher tortoises. "I was glad we were able to preserve as much as we did."
Mike Holmes, the city's planning director, said there was pressure on the family that owned the land to sell, so development was inevitable. It was up to city officials, residents and the developers to work out a plan that accommodated concerns and protected some natural lands. Many today feel they did well.
Pete Oatman, who enjoys the landscape of Victoria Park, said he still regularly sees turkeys on his walks.
DeLand has also had to adjust to a greater demand for services. Fire Station 83 was built on Taylor Road, while DeLand has since hired "a few" new police officers and put "a huge amount" into utilities infrastructure, City Manager Michael Pleus said.
But Victoria Park now accounts for 16 percent, or $232 million, of DeLand's total taxable property value of more than $1.3 billion, according to the Volusia County Property Appraiser's Office.
GROWTH SLOWER THAN ANTICIPATED
Dennis Matter, a 73-year-old semiretired engineering manager, and his wife Linda were the first residents to move into Victoria Gardens in 2001.
"It was a leap of faith," Matter said. "I probably wouldn't have done it but ... I was in Boca Raton all the time and I love what (Arvida and its eventual merger partner, The St. Joe Co.) did there."
Within a few weeks, there were five occupied homes and a community was on its way.
Yet Victoria Park has developed slower than originally projected.
About 1,650 of the development's 3,400 lots have been built, Duchscher said. "It was supposed to be built over 13 years. We're in our 16th year now," she said.
The recession slowed things to a crawl. But the development never stopped and there hasn't been much deviation from the original plans, Duchscher said.
Victoria Park covers 1,800 acres, subdivided into four parts by the Dr. Martin Luther King Beltway and Orange Camp Road. In addition to Victoria Gardens, the senior-living community, it includes a mixed-use section named Victoria Commons, the golf-course section Victoria Hills and the growing single-family-homes subdivision Victoria Trails, where more land is being cleared. Home prices start at about $200,000.
Each section has amenities such as community pools and clubhouses, said Mark Bines, a Kolter vice president who oversees Victoria Park.
"There's a huge lifestyle component, and that's helped make Victoria Park, for sure. It's in DeLand, which has one of the top main streets in all of America," Bines said.
Victoria Park sold even the mayor, Bob Apgar, first elected in 2001. He has lived in two different homes in Victoria Park since 2003.
"It was a concern when Victoria Park came to DeLand that it would, because of the size of the development, it would create kind of an us-versus-them situation, but quite frankly, the opposite has occurred. Many of the Victoria Park residents have embraced the values of DeLand," Apgar said. "They enjoy the ambiance of our downtown. They say that's what they were looking for when they moved."
Residents are a mix of folks who were already familiar with DeLand and others who relocated to Central Florida from other parts of the country.
"The proximity to I-4 has made (Victoria Park) attractive to people who may work in the Orlando area," Apgar said. "A number of retirees have come to Victoria Park as it allows them to have easy access to visit friends in the Orlando area and enjoy DeLand's quality of life."
Looking ahead, Pleus and Apgar say they anticipate more development south of Victoria Park near DeLand's corner of State Road 472 and I-4. Growth has long been anticipated in that area, and there are signs of life.
On Deltona's side of the interstate, Halifax Health has expressed interest in a long-term plan to develop a 31-acre parcel, while Central Florida Regional Hospital in Sanford last week announced plans to open a freestanding emergency room there in about a year.
Bines, who oversees Victoria Park's development for Kolter, said he is watching closely Volusia County's plans for widening Orange Camp Road.
Jerry Brinton, Volusia County's director of engineering and construction, said there is nearly $10 million set aside to widen Orange Camp to four lanes from near the entrance to Victoria Trails heading east to I-4. The road will remain two lanes going west to U.S. 17-92.
Public meetings on the project are expected early next year, with bidding likely late in 2016, he said.
Matter, the longest-tenured Victoria Gardens resident, pulled no punches when asked what he'd like to see develop on DeLand's south end next: "The truth is, there's no restaurants. We constantly are going to Lake Mary or Port Orange or Daytona to go out to eat. ... I'd definitely like to see some things like Carrabba's, Outback, that type of thing, Panera Bread."