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Ocoee prepares to break ground on new ‘main street’

OCOEE, Fla. — Ouida Meeks is practically a synonym for Ocoee’s West Oakland Avenue.

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Generations of city residents have watched the Alabama transplant raise her sons at her white-sided home, greet neighbors with her broad, friendly accent and commute to her jobs with the city.

They also saw her become a real estate agent, shrewdly buying up one neighbor’s house after the next until she owned practically the entire street.

Monday afternoon, Meeks stopped by her former house – now, like the others, a rental property – and surveyed the orange markings on the ground, the freshly planted telephone pole next to her old garden and the barricades blocking traffic from crossing the railroad tracks at the end of her block.

It was a heavy reminder that she may be the street’s landlord, but she didn’t own the pavement.

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“I have mixed emotions about it,” she said.

Ocoee is possibly days away from breaking ground on a reconstruction of West Oakland Avenue, billing it as the city’s new “Main Street” and the future of a rejuvenated downtown.

The plan calls for a two-way road with a 22-foot median, centered by a bike path running down the middle. Extra large sidewalks and on-street parking will consume most, if not all of the 80-foot-wide right-of-way that leaders hope will lure small businesses, restaurants and more taken aback by the high prices demanded on Winter Garden’s Plant Street.

City leaders hope to connect the bike trail to Winter Garden, Oakland and Clermont one day, creating a lakefront hub just a block from where many existing businesses eagerly wait for the influx of customers.

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Already, one phase of the plan has been finished: a new, walkable park off of the future main street.

“I get calls, sometimes daily,” Jim Sills, owner of DJ’s Auto Sales of Ocoee and a major downtown landlord, said. “Businesses want to move in.”

Some have already made the leap. Toll Road Brewing opened six years ago on one of Sills’ properties. Co-owner Duane Morin said he and his partner were trying to figure out where to establish and grow when they heard about the city’s plans.

Now, they’re just a block away from the future action – and within sight of where they hope customers will ride through.

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“Every day we get closer to it actually being a reality,” Morin said. “It was definitely a risk. It was tough getting people to know we were here and getting people down here, but every year we’ve grown.”

Morin said he wouldn’t seek to move to the main road, but had plans to increase his visibility from what’s now the back of his lot.

Before any of that can happen, the city will have to go through Meeks, whose power – for now – is limited to deciding whether to sell her properties, lease them to businesses to redevelop into commercial space, or continue to hold them as homes – albeit with a street now running through 75% of the front yard.

Meeks did not appear to be standing in the way of change, but she also didn’t indicate she was ready to see her neighborhood become the downtown itself.

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She worried more about the inconvenience construction would have on her and her tenants, the cutting down of the trees her husband planted and the fate of the home at the end of the street, which she called the oldest house in Ocoee and insisted on its preservation.

It’s among the few properties she didn’t own.

“I really can’t see this as a shopping center, but you know, I’m not the one in charge of the city,” she said. :I do have my opinions, and it’s been a wonderful place to live.”

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