When embarking an almost $2 Billion undertaking like Avalon Park Orlando, it cannot be done alone. Working on this article, I quickly recounted over 100 partnerships that we have engaged in over the years. Avalon Park Group has always been passionate about partnering with any government entity, private group, or individual to make the world, and in this case east Orlando a better place to live, learn, work and play.
Close to two decades ago I met with Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) and discussed the desire to have schools within walking distance for every grade in Avalon Park for all its future residents. At that time leadership from OCPS looked at as if I were from another planet, or maybe Switzerland, when I asked them if OCPS could build schools in Avalon Park on or before the homes would be built. That was a foreign concept and I was told that was not something that could be done. The logic being that we needed to have “rooftops” with school children living there before we could engage in planning and building schools. Sort of the chicken and egg question. I thought that was odd to wait until children were there, but this was the rule at the time.
People who know me, know as well that I do not take no for an answer, and that is exactly the case here. We knew from focus groups and from our instincts that to have a good community foundation, we must have good schools! So we went back to the drawing board and began working on our partnership with OCPS. That partnership started with a land donation from Avalon Park Group for the Avalon Park Elementary school site. In the early 2000’s this is not something a builder/developer would typically do. In fact, shortly after that land donation I received a rather angry phone call from a large homebuilding company characterizing Avalon Park Group’s land donation to OCPS a “stupid move” with having the potential to set a dangerous precedent for developers and homebuilders. I am proud to say that partnership kicked off an amazing success story for our community with Avalon Park Elementary. Understanding that a great school does not just come from a building, we wanted to continue to grow the partnership. So, I asked Pam Sanders, the legendary former principal for 14 years who opened Avalon Elementary, how the school could become the best elementary school in Orange County. The answer was logic: we need the best teachers. She had a plan to attract the very best teachers by creating a culture for teachers to gain a global perspective. While we look to teachers to educate our children on global matters, they are often the ones who are among the least traveled. Our partnership then became finding a way to bring a global experience to the schoolteachers in our community. It is our belief that teachers should be the most traveled and should know the world to be able to teach from first-hand experience in their classrooms. There is a difference in reading about the Great Wall of China in a book versus having been there to experience it. So, the partnership evolved to a sponsorship of the Avalon Elementary School teachers from APG that gave opportunity to the teachers to travel the world, to places like Switzerland, China, Africa, Australia and South America. Under the leadership of Pam Sanders, Avalon Elementary became a Blue Ribbon School, one of the best schools in the United States.
Then there are sometimes where emergencies arise that force some partnerships for the best of all. In early 2001, when Timber Creek High School (a $55M project) was approximately 90% complete, OCPS realized that Orange County did not have the timing for the access road (today called Avalon Park Boulevard) lined up with the opening of the school. It was in the County’s plan to have the access road to the high school completed in 2004. As you can imagine the shock of the OCPS representatives, what would one tell the public, that there is a brand new needed school complete but students would not be able get there because there was no access road. We all imagined the daily newspaper headline, “$55M Taxpayer Built High School with No Way for Students to Get There.” Orange County Public Works and OCPS convinced me that there would be no chance the road could be built in that timeframe (approximately 9 months) by a government entity, due to the public bidding, funding and construction process timing. In a “sort of a handshake deal” forced Avalon Park Group to take over the road construction and because of a private enterprise setting the road was able to be completed just days before the school opened in 2001.
I could go on and on about Avalon Park Group’s Public-Private Partnerships in central Florida. We could write a book about the YMCA, the Tech Center, the soonto-be-open fire station, and many others, in Avalon Park, if not for partnerships.
Today we are building Avalon Park communities in Wesley Chapel (North Tampa), Tavares (Lake County) and Daytona Beach. In all those undertakings, in total more than $3 Billion, we look back to our successful partnerships in Avalon Park Orlando.
The headline “smart growth” is used often but practiced rarely. And, in the past smart meant, “let’s build thousands of homes, have developer pay with impact fees (those are going up and sometimes are higher than to pay for a brand new car, make it prohibitive to build homes for the middle class Americans), and then at some time build roads and schools, often year after the taxpayer pays for it and the community needs it.” We need to change that. This is why whenever it is possible, we want to build infrastructure like schools, roads and utilities FIRST. It can be done, but it requires long term thinking and out-of-the box strategies. It requires government agencies and the private sector to work together. We all need to think beyond the “next quarter mentality of Wall Street” and the next election of politicians. But again, PARTNER- SHIPS are the key to success of many of the world’s most stunning accomplishments.
Let’s work together, let’s put behind the “we cannot do it this way” and the “we have always done it that way” mentality.
Hindsight is 20/20. With that in mind Avalon Park Group has its own 20/20 …..we want to bring forward 20 or more Public/Private Partnerships in central Florida and continue to build on the success of the past. Some in Avalon Park Orlando come to mind like a larger YMCA, a new Olympic sized swimming pool, a 20-acre park (long promised by Orange County), a new football field for Timber Creek and more. We are proud of our partnerships and look forward to creating many more. Do you know of a need to do something large, big thinking and dreaming undertaking let me know? I am almost sure it can only realized if a PARTNERSHIP is formed.