Florida Developer Targets Small Town

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
This 1923 church stands in the way of the new retail complex,
so residents are trying to raise $700,000 to move it to the
town square.

Credit: Town of Windermere

Progress is coming to the island that Florida forgot.

But some residents of Windermere, Fla., a town of 2,400 people just six miles southwest of Orlando, oppose a neighbor's plan to build a 50,000-square-foot retail complex in its sleepy downtown.

"We're a small community with 800 homes total, and to put something in there that's 50,000 square feet—it's against our comprehensive plan, which says you should only build within the needs of the community," says Thellie Roper, a 43-year resident and member of Friends of Windermere. "It will dwarf whatever downtown we have. People are upset about that."

At a public workshop this week, the town council drafted a development order asking Kevin Azzouz's Orlando-based Veranda Partners LLC to scale back its plans for Main Street Shoppes, a complex of two-story Greek revival-style buildings. The council's order will ask Veranda Partners to build only 30,000 square feet, which includes a maximum of 5,000 square feet for restaurants, according to councilmember Jennifer Roper, Thellie's daughter.

"I said I hoped that this [development] will be something that the town can use, and it doesn't end up being all professional offices and exp restaurants," Roper says. "We still can say no. It's not a done deal."

Azzouz, who could not be reached for comment, initially proposed a 70,000-square-foot center but scaled down the design after a contentious public hearing on May 8.

Standing in the way of the new retail space is the 1923 Windermere Union Church, which Azzouz owns. He has said he'll donate the building, empty for about a year, to the town if it raises enough money to move it across the street to the town square.

"He was just going to tear the whole thing down, so we formed a committee, and he said, 'Well, you can have it if you want to move it,'" says resident Mary Hayes, who is trying to raise $700,000 for the church's relocation. "Windermere has a lot of history, but there are not many buildings that are left that are of this vintage. A lot of people went to preschool there, were married there and baptized there. We just thought it was a shame to let it go." 

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