Vacant strip mall casinos undermine Lake County's comeback

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LAKE COUNTY, Fla. —

While the commercial and residential real estate markets are staging a comeback across most of central Florida, the picture is not as pretty in Lake County.

Millions of dollars of commercial real estate space is sitting vacant, some of it for years along U.S. 27 in Leesburg.

There's now a glut of abandoned strip mall casinos that the state shut down, so new tenants are not beating down the doors of the landlords.

There was a time when commercial landlords across central Florida, and especially in Lake County, depended on the casinos for cash.

"In some ways, they were like manna from heaven. Because there was a rash of -- 'let's lease these things up,'" said real estate agent Jim Miller.

Miller said now that the state has shut down all the strip mall casinos, some of the small shopping centers have no tenants at all. Even when the so-called Internet cafes were booming, they presented problems, because their customers used all of a strip mall's parking.

"So, if you had a center that was thriving, you didn't want it anywhere near you. But if you had one that was dead, you'd take anything," Miller said.

Now the casinos are dead, and that has added to the glut of empty shops along U.S. 27 near Leesburg. Within just a few miles, there are several strip malls with either a tenant or two, or none at all.

While the commercial and residential real estate markets have staged a strong comeback in Orange County, Miller said Lake County usually lags a year or two behind.

"We are recovering, but it has been, it was like, dead. And now we're doing a little. And a little feels really good when you were doing nothing," Miller said.

Miller said true recovery may still be a few years down the road.