• Orange Blossom Trail: Same problems decades later

    By: Steve Barrett , Jason Kelly

    Updated:

    ORLANDO, Fla. - Almost 40 years ago, Orlando and its family-friendly image had a problem.

    Massage parlors, prostitutes, strip clubs and rising crime along South Orange Blossom Trail had become such a concern that in 1981, Channel 9 produced an hourlong documentary addressing the corridor's decline.

    Fast forward to the present, and authorities said this iconic Orlando thoroughfare is still struggling with the same problems.

    "There were certain elements that came along with the adult business industry that were not conducive to a positive neighborhood environment," said Vanessa Pinkney, director of the Orange Blossom Trail Development Board.

    Read: 'Operation Sunshine' targeted violence, drug dealing on OBT

    Pinkney, who works in a building that was once a strip club, said the Channel 9 documentary was in part the genesis of the organization, which seeks to redefine the area.

    "We are the result of those discussions," she said.

    The documentary focused on the sex trade's effect on the area, but the Orange County sheriff at the time was more concerned about violent crimes in the area.

    "We have to establish priorities," Sheriff Mel Coleman told Channel 9 in 1981. "Our priorities as long as I've been sheriff have been an attempt to combat and investigate more serious crime, particularly those that are violent in nature -- robbery, rape, (aggravated) battery, homicide, burglary."

    Fast forward to 2018, and the current sheriff, Jerry Demings, had a similar message.

    "There has been a marked increase in crime in the last 12 months," he said. "Robberies, burglaries and other violence have sadly become the norm in this particular area."

    Demings launched Operation Sunshine in the spring to target crime along South Orange Blossom Trail, where about three-quarters of the county's prostitution arrests are made.

    Developer Lesly LaRoache is now remodeling a building that was once an adult bookstore.

    "We're going to pave (areas), put some palm trees, beautify the landscape, make it more attractive," she said. "I'm not going to say it's going to solve the crime issue, but at least it will show that there is a presence here. We are looking at things."

    Many of the buildings shown in the 1981 special remain standing as do some of the adult-themed businesses. Although there are fewer such businesses, much of the blight seen in the 1980s continues to persist.

    Operation Sunshine has resulted in a 17 percent reduction in overall crime, Demings said.

    That and redevelopment in the neighborhood gives Pinkney hope.

    "I see nothing but hope," she said. "I believe that anything is possible."

    In recent years, a new Holden Heights Community Center has opened, Camping World Stadium has been remodeled, the Orlando Police Department opened a new headquarters and the I-4 Ultimate Project's interchange is now under construction.

    "This is the time. This is really the season for OBT to really have a comeback," Pinkney said. "We haven't forgotten. We're taking this very seriously, and we're looking forward to seeing change happen."

    Randy Fischer, a now-retired University of Central Florida psychology professor, uttered prophetic words in that Channel 9 documentary.

    "I suspect we'll be debating this for a very long time," he said.

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