By Erika Webb
Orange City has plenty of grey manatees, but few white elephants. For the most part, no sooner are big buildings and shopping center spaces vacated than fresh paint, new signs and new tenants are in place.
Recently the 16,000-square-foot building at 911 S. Volusia Ave., left empty last year by John's Appliance & Bedding, was leased by Fancy Fruit and Produce Inc., a multi-cultural market with four Orlando locations.
Owner Felix Dominguez said he chose Orange City because there was not another store of its kind in the area and because the city is easily accessible for shoppers in DeBary, DeLand and Deltona.
"We think it's a good location," Mr. Dominguez said. "It's easy for people to go there."
The market, which Mr. Dominguez expects to open mid-March, will offer prices "40 to 50 percent lower than everybody else," he said.
He's very pleased with the way he's been treated on this side of the bridge.
"The city, they don't give me a hard time. Everything's been easy," Mr. Dominguez said.
John's Appliance owner John Hinton, who still owns the building, said there was interest in the property almost immediately after he moved his store just down the road.
"Within 30 days we had several people wanting to rent," Mr. Hinton said.
He called Orange City "a well-run town."
"They are very open-minded people who work with tenants," Mr. Hinton said. "They've always worked real well with me."
Since moving into the former Atchley Appliance & TV building, Mr. Hinton said he has expanded the 9,000-square-foot showroom to 18,000 square feet to make room for a complete kitchen and cabinet design center as well as a large bedding inventory.
The expansion process was seamless, Mr. Hinton said, taking only 60 to 90 days to complete.
In keeping with the area's balance of history and progress, Mr. Hinton said a third-generation member of the Atchley family, Loren Atchley, will join the John's Appliance team as manager for the Orange City store.
West Volusia Regional Chamber of Commerce director, secretary to the board and Orange City business owner Laura Engstrom said several things make Orange City a desirable place to do business.
"There is so much traffic in Orange City because it's so centralized and Orange City has made it a point to be hospitable," Ms. Engstrom said. "Because Orange City is more geared toward businesses, you find they gravitate here."
Ms. Engstrom is the co-owner of Alternate Plumbing and Design near the southeast corner of U.S. 17/92 and Blue Springs Avenue. She said since the city changed the timing of traffic lights, the speed of traffic in front of her business has slowed, creating a safer passage for travelers and allowing them more time to take in their surroundings, which, she said, is good for businesses along the main roads.
Orange City Mayor Tom Laputka said city leaders recognize and affirm the lure for business owners.
"We call ourselves a crossroad here," Mayor Laputka said. "I moved here 25 years ago. The road was there but we could have had this interview in the middle of 17/92, brought our lunch, and not been disturbed."
With a population of 10,500, the mayor said Orange City's daily people count swells to more than 60,000 with 30,000 vehicles traveling to or through the city each day.
"It's a hub and that's appealing to a retailer who says, 'At least I know one thing, I'm getting a lot of traffic,'" the mayor said.
A recent survey, based on square footage, determined vacancy in the city's four major shopping centers -- Orange City Marketplace, West Volusia Towne Center, Saxon Crossings and Crown Center Plaza -- was only around 7 percent, excluding the 89,000-square-foot former Kmart store.
Orange City Development Services Director Alison Stettner said the city conducts periodic "ad hoc in-house surveys" as part of an ongoing commitment to take the business community's pulse and help wherever possible.
"We are blessed with a very low vacancy rate," Ms. Stettner said. "There's not a very high turnover rate in the city."
She attributes high occupancy rates to location, traffic, shoppers and residents.
"It's important for us to know how vibrant our city is. It's the sentiment of all of our staff that we care a lot about our businesses and if there's a vacancy, we want to help them get it filled," Ms. Stettner said.
The city is "actively working" with Orange City Marketplace owners to get the former Kmart space filled, she added.
But the city isn't easily wooed into lowering its aesthetic standards.
Mayor Laputka said Kohl's approached the city several times before an agreement could be reached regarding the store's design.
"They wanted to build a box and that's not what we're doing here, building boxes," he said.
Citing the somewhat quainter -- compared to the chain-retailer's other stores -- design of the recently-erected Orange City Dollar General, the mayor said Orange City has standards.
"There's an architectural flair to what we wanted (Kohl's) to do. They came back three times before they built the store here," Mayor Laputka said. "Orange City is the top or second busiest store in the state for them."
The continuing influx of chain retail stores and eateries along Saxon Boulevard and Enterprise Road is proof centrally-located Orange City has broad appeal for merchants looking to draw consumers from as many areas as possible.
Robin Beckman, a Realtor with Family Realty in Orange City, said it's the "melting pot" of roads that has rendered Orange City "the core of West Volusia."
"We're right in the middle, right there at that corridor ... accessible to everybody and everything," Ms. Beckman said. "You have 17/92 and I-4 right there. DeBary is right there. You have Enterprise coming from Deltona."
Natalie Henderson has lived in Orange City for nearly 60 years. In that time, she's seen a lot of changes to the small town where she grew up and "everybody knew everybody."
"I love the convenience of all the shopping ... Orange City has a lot to offer," Ms. Henderson said. "It has grown, really has progressed but it still has a lot of the old parts."
Ms. Henderson said she doesn't see people she knows as often as she once did, but she appreciates what city leaders have done to integrate the small-town charm with growth.
"I love driving by the new park down there where you see families picnicking and kids playing in the water," she said.
She was referring to Veterans Memorial Park at the corner of 17/92 and East Blue Springs Avenue. In recent years the park and its facilities have been expanded and improved to include new ADA compliant playground equipment, a resurfaced splash pad, additional handicapped parking spaces and enhanced landscaping.
"I can't imagine living anyplace else," Ms. Henderson said.