Candidates Talk Infrastructure, Housing, and Charm at Winter Park Chamber Forum

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Residents packed the conference room at Winter Park Chamber of Commerce on the evening of February 7 to witness a forum for candidates running in the March 19 city elections. Mayoral candidate Sheila DeCiccio and City Commission Seat 2 candidates Jason Johnson and Craig Russell attended the event while Mayoral candidate Michael Cameron and City Commission Seat 2 candidate Stockton Reeves were absent.

Russell is a Winter Park High School teacher and coach. He serves on the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and is a Winter Park Library trustee. Johnson is an attorney and currently the chairman of the city’s Board of Adjustments. DeCiccio, who is also an attorney, is currently Vice Mayor and holds City Commission Seat 2. Her previous city service includes seats on the Planning and Zoning Board, Economic Development Agency, and Orange Avenue Overlay Committee.

A full-house attended the candidate forum at Winter Park Chamber of Commerce.

According to a representative from the Winter Park Chamber, all candidates were invited to attend and no explanation was provided by those who did not.

Candidates were each allowed a 90-second response to questions ranging from how to tackle the affordable housing problem to ways the city can generate charm throughout its business districts. The livestreamed forum is archived and available via the Winter Park Chamber Facebook page.

DeCiccio referred to current city strategies for increasing affordable housing and solving the parking dilemma. She cited a plan to annex land by I4 and Fairbanks Avenue for housing development, adding that partnerships with developers were necessary for new home construction. She also mentioned the city’s downtown parking study, which is currently evaluating the need for additional spaces, and noted new parking areas planned at Seven Oaks Park which will be completed this summer.

Forum moderator and Associate Vice President of Government Relations for UCF, Fred Kittinger, Sr., listens as Vice Mayor and Mayoral Candidate Sheila DeCiccio discusses parking solutions.

There were several occasions when Russell expressed a need for collaboration with other municipalities to find solutions to Winter Park’s issues. He said that addressing affordable housing should involve the creation of workforce housing, and that a dialogue should be opened with other cities to collectively work toward a solution. “It’s a regional problem, it’s a statewide problem,” he said. “We’re going to have to collaborate more and be open to the conversation.” On the subject of parking, he said that “it’s important to keep the needs of all residents in mind,” and that he is in favor of considering solutions that have worked in other cities.

Johnson said he believes that an Orange County requirement of the city’s proposed expansion of its Community Redevelopment Agency – a special tax district aimed at community redevelopment – will be that more of its funds go toward affordable housing. He also stated that he is not in favor of large-scale multifamily developments in the heart of the city, but added that “there are places where that makes sense and I would be happy to see that happen.”

City Commission Seat 2 candidate, Jason Johnson

Regarding parking, Johnson said he was against “eviscerating the local parking code to favor commercial development,” and that some tweaks could be made to “put it more in line with the needs of our residents and what the actual requirements are for certain developments.”

When asked about investing in programs other than infrastructure, all three candidates said that infrastructure is the most important investment that Winter Park could make. “We’ve kicked this can down the road for so many years,” DeCiccio said of the stormwater drainage issue. “If we don’t invest in it, our businesses will not continue to flourish – and no one wants to live in a city where their houses are flooding.” Johnson referred to the need to maintain safe sidewalks and to properly maintain brick streets, stating that they are part of the city’s charm. “You can’t talk about spending priorities without talking about infrastructure,” he said. Russell agreed with DeCiccio and Johnson, but also mentioned the importance of maintaining city parks and involving resident feedback in investment decisions. “You’re not going to get anything new until you take care of what you have,” he said.

In the absence of DeCiccio’s Mayoral opponent, the contrasting views of the two attending rivals for Commission Seat 2 often took the spotlight. On the subject of building city charm, Johnson and Russell did not see eye to eye. While Johnson supports the need to improve gateway corridors and incentivize businesses to create an aesthetically pleasing environment, Russell began his answer by stating, “I have a problem with the word ‘charm’.” He touted the city’s history and tradition as worthy investments to benefit its economic future.

City Commission Seat 2 candidate, Craig Russell

On the potential impact of Planning and Zoning Board recommendations on land use decisions, Johnson said, “They’re just that, they’re recommendations. The only people who are accountable to the residents are the elected members of the City Commission.” However, Russell stated a belief that board members are just as accountable as commissioners, and that there is a duty to consider their recommendations. “I’m just as accountable for taking their recommendation to heart to make an informed decision.”

The two also expressed differing views on whether the former library property should be sold to benefit the city’s revenue stream. Russell believes that careful consideration should be given to the potential benefits of a sale and its effect on residents. Johnson believes the property is too important to sell off and that the city should see that it is transformed into an appropriate gateway.

DeCiccio also stated the importance of retaining the library property and believes the city should hold onto it, as is, until the right idea for its reuse is presented.

Candidates shake hands at the end of the forum.

During closing remarks, DeCiccio touted her experience as a commissioner and the improvements in city services and fiscal strength that occurred during her tenure. “My vision is to continue to do all of these things, especially infrastructure,” she said, adding that, as mayor, she would work with county, state, and federal governments to fund and complete projects. Johnson referred to Russell’s statement about city charm as the biggest difference between them, and said that preserving Winter Park’s charm was his “north star for running in this election.” Russell said he wants to bring diverse leadership and new perspective to City Commission, and to set an example of service for the next generation. “I would like to bring leadership and volunteerism; to show young people how to serve. That’s what elected officials do.”

Information on all candidates, along with voter information, is available on the Vote Winter Park page of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce website, and on the Election Info page of the City of Winter Park website. A video of a January 22 forum with City Commission Seat 2 candidates at Winter Park Library is available here.

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