WINTER HAVEN – As the sun was setting on a brisk Tuesday, Nov. 12, in the newly-renovated South Central Park, representatives of the American Planning Association Florida chapter and dozens of Winter Haven city leaders celebrated the City of Winter Haven recently having been awarded the 2019 Great Places in Florida People's Choice Award.
Mayor Brad Dantzler gave an inspiring speech, recollecting his memories of the downtown area as a child.
But it was Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Birdsong's speech that really got to the heart of the matter.
“A success like downtown Winter Haven doesn't just happen,” Birdsong said. “It's the people who make the difference — key visionaries.”
Birdsong listed a number of those key visionaries, including former Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce President Bob Gernert and former Winter Haven City Commission members Dave Dershimer, Scott Girouard, Dr. Tom Freijo, Charles Richardson, Bruce Parker, Dan Abernathy, Dan Costelo, Ann Darby, Robert Branson, Yvonne Brooks, Jeff Potter, Jamie Beckett, Steven Hunnicutt, Charlie Cone, the late Mike Easterling, the late Robert “Smitty” Smith and the late Dan Costelo.
Birdsong also credited city managers Carl Cheatham, David Greene, Dale Smith, Deric Feacher, Mike Herr and T. Michael Stavres for their roles in helping to transform the downtown area from what it looked like 20 years ago to what it looks like now.
“They were all passionately involved in the transformation of our beautiful downtown,” Birdsong explained.
Some of those leaders laid the groundwork in the 1990s, Birdsong said. But, he went on, the creation of the City of Winter Haven Redevelopment Agency on March 13, 2000, stands out as a milestone for turning the idea of reinventing Winter Haven into a written plan, through a series of workshops that year.
Main Street Winter Haven Executive Director Anita Strang recalled opening a business downtown around that time and described the area then as being in decline and a place where it might be difficult to start a new business. Others who have lived in Winter Haven for the past 20 years recall the vacant buildings and when foot traffic on Friday nights was sparse.
Cheatham was city manager at the time and Freijo, Richardson and Potter were all commissioners at the turn of the century. Current Planning Commission Chair Steve Lockhart was on the planning commission in 2000, also — another local leader instrumental in coming up with the initial plan for a new future for the city.
The report outlined in writing a potential which the APA award has recognized as being actualized.
“The Winter Haven historic downtown could be visually and spatially one of the finest in the state of Florida,” read the 2000 CRA final report. “Clearly this asset needs to be stabilized economically and preserved and enhanced visually in order to maintain it as the thematic heart and soul of the City.”
City Manager Mike Herr credited longtime Growth Management Director Merle Bishop for seeing the potential of the downtown area years before the turnaround plan began. Before recently retiring, Bishop and other city staff put together the application for the APA 2019 Great Places in Florida Award.
Also often recognized when discussing the revival of the district is developer Six/Ten LLC, which has invested significantly in the corridor.
One other takeaway from the speakers at the celebration was that the celebration of — and the effort behind — Winter Haven’s improvement does not need to end.
“I believe that by winning the 2019 Great Places in Florida People's Choice Award we are just about there,” Herr said. “But let’s keep this celebration alive, okay? Let’s keep it alive.”