Communication Builds Our Community

More Public Parking Downtown is Goal of CRA Purchase

More convenient public parking downtown, the subject of repeated merchant requests, will be addressed soon, according to city officials.

Converting a private parking lot to a city-owned facility is on the agenda of the next meeting of the Lake Wales Community Redevelopment Agency The board will consider the purchase of the privately-owned lot at the corner of Park Avenue and First Street at their January 9 meeting. The move is viewed as part of the ongoing reinvigoration efforts for Park Avenue to better support downtown retail business.

CRA Executive Director James Slaton is proposing the $200,000 purchase from the Friedlander family, which for generations operated a department store just across the street from the lot. The price is contingent upon an appraisal for an equal or greater value.

The two streets facing the lot are both currently under construction, part of the expansive Lake Wales Connected effort. Both are receiving extensive new landscaping to accompany new sidewalks, bike tracks, lighting, and in the case of Park Avenue, new brick pavement.

The western portion of the Park Avenue reconstruction is nearing completion and city officials expect it to be reopened for traffic in coming weeks. The formerly barren expanse of cracked asphalt and broken sidewalks now features a new, two-way brick street, shaded by three rows of live oaks. New sidewalks, street lighting, benches and art are also being installed.

The former Friedlander's store, meanwhile, is subject of a pending restoration project that anticipates up to eight new residential units on the third floor and new commercial uses on lower levels. That project, being undertaken by local investors Tammy and Stephen James, will follow the ongoing work on their adjacent block of storefronts facing First Street.

Three other restoration projects are underway along East Park Avenue, each seeking to recreate the historic aspects of buildings that had been "modernized" to the detriment of the area's character in prior decades.

CRA officials expect the Connected redesign to draw investment from the private sector to improve the appearance and value of downtown buildings, which in turn generates increased tax revenue. The CRA captures most of that increase as "Increment" which must be reinvested within the CRA district.

City officials admit that no effort to bring downtown to its full potential will be complete without including the vacant Walesbilt Hotel. Plans for the ten-story historic structure are on hold as the courts weigh the merits of the city's lawsuit seeking to reclaim title from the current owner, Dixie-Walesbilt LLC.

The city deeded the structure to that corporation more than a decade ago, but the promised restoration was never completed, leading to rounds of recrimination and finger-pointing. The city's lawsuit now includes a "motion for summary judgement" which would preclude a full trial, essentially awarding ownership back to the city.

The motion alleges that Dixie-Walesbilt principal Ray Brown induced the city to deed him the building using fraudulent statements. If the city's suit is successful officials expect to offer the building to other developers.


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