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Return to: 1999 Feature Stories


April 1999: Public Works


The City of Leesburg has long been recognized as one of Central Florida's most picturesque cities. Surrounded by cultivated waterways and chock full of historic homes more than 100 years old, Leesburg, pop. 15,658, is a family-oriented community with numerous parks, schools and churches. The city is only 40 miles northwest of Orlando and is accessible by four major highways and thoroughfares. Leesburg is also the largest city in Lake County.

Yet all was not bucolic in this 124-year-old city. Beginning in the late 1970s, downtown Leesburg was hit hard by urban sprawl. Suburban malls siphoned off business. Many merchants were forced to close or relocated to outlying areas. The downtown exodus even included five banks.

According to Planning and Zoning Director Matt West, Leesburg tried implementing pedestrian plazas, one-way streets and other programs to economically jumpstart downtown, but the results were less than dramatic. Then, in 1995, the city became affiliated with the Tallahassee-based Florida Main Street Program and its parent organization, the National Main Street Program. Both organizations encourage economic revitalization and physical improvements in downtown. The programs are designed to assist small communities in preserving the architectural heritage and special character of downtown, while also strengthening the community's economic base. The local non-profit, tax-exempt entity, now known as the Leesburg Partnership, Inc., has been working with the city's Planning & Zoning Department, Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), and Berryman & Henigar to formulate a redevelopment plan for Main Street. The Leesburg Partnership has outlined four reasons why the downtown revitalization project is so important to Leesburg:

  • Builds a positive image for the community -- it reflects a community's confidence in itself and its future.
  • Creates job opportunities by attracting new industry and strengthening service and retail job markets.
  • Saves tax dollars because it stabilizes and improves the area's tax base and protects the investment made in the downtown infrastructure.
  • Preserves the community's historic resources. In an economically healthy downtown, property owners can afford to maintain the historic commercial buildings and preserve an important part of the community's heritage.


There are a number of elements to the Main Street project. In August 1997, the city commission approved a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district encompassing 105 city blocks, approximately 700 acres of the city's core.

A TIF is used to leverage public funds and to promote private sector activity. Property values in a certain defined area are capped or frozen at the assessed value for a particular base year. Thereafter, any tax revenues due to an increase in value in excess of the base are dedicated to the redevelopment area. These tax increment revenues can be used immediately, saved for specific projects or bonded to maximize the available funds. A TIF district can last up to 30 years under Florida law. The TIF fund raised $145,000 during its first fiscal year. These funds are being used for various public projects, including downtown streetscape improvements.

According to Joe Shipes, executive vice president of the Leesburg Partnership all of these funding mechanisms will make possible a 30-year, multi-million dollar phased development for Leesburg.

"These include streetscape improvements, façade improvements, demolition of substandard structures, traffic improvements," he said.

Shipes added that the Leesburg Partnership holds a number of promotional events to help reintroduce people to downtown and generate foot traffic for merchants. These have included a crafts bazaar, an Öktoberfest Car and Truck Show,' a "Light Up Downtown" celebration that kicks off the Christmas season, a Halloween "Trick or Treat on Main Street," and "Bike Fest Antique and Custom Bike Show," a motorcycle event drawing bikers nationwide.

The non-profit group is also actively recruiting businesses to Main Street. It helped the city obtain a $1.2 million loan, for example, to renovate the historic Life Stream building. The structure now houses the United Southern Bank on the bottom floor, and a behavioral center and other businesses on other floors.


One of the most noticeable elements of the Main Street redevelopment project are the streetscape improvements. The $1.5 million project is now underway with actual construction slated to begin during the Second Quarter of 1999. It will make the area more pedestrian friendly and concurrently, increase new business development. "Neck-outs" created at each intersection will slow down traffic and minimize the crosswalk distance for increased pedestrian safety. These Žneck-out' areas will also be utilized for strategic placement of landscaping and street lighting.

The streetscape project encompasses many improvements Ů sidewalk replacement and street resurfacing, strategically located street trees, brick crosswalks, historic street lighting, street furnishings and provisions for future telecommunication and electrical upgrades.

Two of the most visual elements are the landscaping and streetlights. The landscaping includes planting 183 trees utilizing a mix of sabal palms, Chinese elms, crape myrtle and fosters holly. The tree selection will provide a balance of evergreen and deciduous trees, a variety of heights and form along with some seasonal color. Other plant materials selected for low maintenance, drought tolerance and seasonal color include azalea, daylily, lantana, liriope and seasonal annuals.

The historic lighting consists of 36 bullet-resistant, spun concrete poles that have dye injected into the mold. Known as Washington Poles, they have a broad base at the bottom and a glass acorn luminere on top. All of the poles will be placed along Main Street, between Ninth Street and Canal Street -- about a half-mile in length.

An 87-year-old water main located under Main Street will also be replaced. The new water main will increase water pressure. More fire hydrants will be installed as part of this infrastructure project.

Another important facet is reconstructing the roadway surface. The existing pavement will be milled down and Main Street will be resurfaced. Road core tests indicated that some sections of Main Street had up to 7" of thickness of existing asphalt.

New construction tasks include replacing all curbs, gutters and sidewalks. The concrete finish for the new sidewalks is designed to make them look old and these will be scored at 45-degree angles on a five-foot grid. The concrete finish will have a rock salt texture and will be stained to soften the color and to blend with the colors of the proposed concrete paver stones. These pavers will be utilized for all crosswalks in addition to accent areas within the sidewalks. The coloring and texture of these pavers will also help to create an historic ambiance with their irregular textures, edges and coloring.

The streetscape project will preserve a majority of the existing on-street parking while slowing traffic at intersections. The existing traffic signals are slated to be replaced with traffic mast-arms to minimize visual clutter.

Obviously, all of these changes don't happen overnight. The redevelopment of Main Street is incremental. But to paraphrase a famous line from the movie, "Field of Dreams," "if you build it, they will come." The Main Street project has brought together numerous community and civic groups that are dedicated to bringing about positive improvements for downtown Leesburg. The net result will be a revitalized downtown that will once again be a center of activities and goods and services for retailers, shoppers, investors and tourists.

Return to: 1999 Feature Stories