- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

APOPKA, Fla. (AP) - Take a drive through Apopka and you’re likely to see a scene not much different from a decade or two ago.

Main Street is still flanked by fast-food restaurants. The state-champion Apopka High School Blue Darters football team is still a big deal. And on the outskirts of Orange County’s second-largest city are rows of greenhouses and family-owned nurseries that gave Apopka its identity: Indoor Foliage Capital of the World.

But a closer look shows how a tightened marketplace has weeded out many mom-and-pop nurseries, forcing the city to find new ways to grow.

“It doesn’t dominate the city the way it used to,” Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer said of the foliage industry, which has lost dozens of small nurseries and greenhouses to recession, foreclosures and farm consolidation over the past decade.

“Many people are looking at Apopka and saying, ‘What’s next?’”

The answer will not likely require fertilizer or hanging baskets.

For instance, Adventist Health Systems broke ground last month on a seven-story, $203-million hospital that’s expected to make the fallow fields at the confluence of state roads 414, 429 and 451 fertile ground for medical offices and other commercial enterprises that will serve health-care industries.

The city also has begun to develop a mixed-use town center at U.S. Highway 441 and State Road 436 into a gateway with shops and restaurants.

On Apopka’s north end, where orchid farms and foliage nurseries have been rooted for more than half a century, developers are planning a makeover.

Newly proposed, a multi-use project called Ever Meadow would transform about 30 acres on Jason Dwelley Parkway into 49 single-family homes, nearly 60,000 square feet of commercial space and 35,000 square feet of offices. The property, north of Wolf Lake Middle School and the Northwest Recreation Complex, had once been J.B.’s Nursery.

Likewise, investment companies headed by developer Jim Palmer intend to build Kelly Park Crossing along Kelly Park Road. The billion-dollar, multi-use project would be located off the lone interchange on a 15-mile stretch of the Wekiva Parkway, the last piece of an elevated, high-speed toll road around Orlando.

The plan would turn more of Apopka’s shuttered nurseries into homes, offices and restaurants - 9 million square feet of proposed development.

“It’s very similar to what we saw with orange groves in southwest Orange County,” said Richard Anderson, former chief administrative officer for Apopka and now a consultant to the city on its largest, most transformative projects. “Land becomes more valuable for development than for agriculture.”

He pointed out that Apopka’s west Orange neighbor, Winter Garden, has evolved from a withering citrus town into a renaissance city with a vibrant shopping venue, a popular downtown and a cluster of digital-art companies that have attracted talented entrepreneurs. Anderson credited available land and new roads.

Apopka’s going to be the same way,” he said. “It’s our turn.”

For more than 90 years, Apopka had touted its sprouts.

It first added “Fern City” to the municipal crest in 1924, then changed to The Indoor Foliage Capital of the World. The claim hardly seemed boastful.

At one time, the high school offered an agri-vocational class in which students were required to grow - and sell - houseplants.

“There was a time when everybody was in it in some way or another, and they were all doing well,” said Bill Arrowsmith, a banker for four decades and the longest-tenured member of City Council. He also had a small greenhouse on Schopke Road.

“Back then, that was the backbone of the community.”

Apopka City Hall features a large indoor garden filled with spathiphyllum and other locally grown houseplants. A metal sculpture depicting a potted fern is planted on the municipal campus and features a stone monument honoring Harry Ustler and W.P. Newell, regarded as the patriarchs of the industry.

Foliage plants, part of a Florida nursery and landscaping industry estimated at $15.3 billion in annual sales, are grown primarily as indoor decorations, prized for colorful or patterned leaves and not flowers or fruit. No state grows more foliage than Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But Florida’s industry lost 89,000 jobs between 2005 and 2010, said Ben Bolusky, CEO of Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association.

The association’s membership also tumbled from 2,400 to 1,700.

While the growing industry in both Florida and Apopka has steadied itself and even rebounded a little, “it’s much more difficult to make money now than it once was and it probably will never be what it once was,” said Robbie Robertson, 76, who has worked in the Apopka nursery business for 40 years.

With change on the horizon, Apopka’s mayor has even proposed a possible rebranding of the city, perhaps changing its foliage catchphrase.

But that doesn’t mean Apopka would abandon its roots, Kilsheimer said.

“It’s not like we can ever forget it or let it go,” he said.

“For all of our history, we have been about growing things, and we can still be all about growing, economic-development growth, growth in healthy lifestyle and outdoor recreation, eco-tourism growth, personal growth…That’s where I think Apopka is going.”

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