DeLand, Florida

Florida | 1997 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 10/16/2008

In the 1870s, baking soda magnate Henry DeLand dreamed of founding the "Athens of Florida." Captivated during a cruise down the St. John's River by central Florida's pristine, pine-studded landscapes, Henry DeLand moved south. He planted dozens of water oaks along prospective streets of the fledgling settlement. He cultivated fellow enthusiasts from New York and Pennsylvania and encouraged hat baron John B. Stetson to co-found what is today Stetson University. His contemporaries built grand Victorian residences, many of which remain. Chinese immigrant Lue Gim Gong also found fertile ground for his new strains of oranges and grapefruits, sinking roots in the area's early economy. Together, these refugees from far away left an enduring legacy – a tradition of civic pride that flourishes in DeLand today.

DeLand, (pop. 18,000), flush with three National Register neighborhoods, is a place where just 12 years ago the downtown was 75 percent vacant. In 1985, a cadre of community leaders and downtown merchants mobilized a grass-roots venture to become the first officially designated Main Street city in Florida. MainStreet DeLand subsequently implemented an economic restructuring and business-recruitment plan to boost downtown occupancy.

"DeLand offers proof that decay does not have to be the fate of downtown business districts. Commitment, imagination, and hard work on the part of many individuals and organizations have brought about the success we enjoy today," Doreen Courtheyn, president, DeLand Area Chamber of Commerce

It is also a town that, until it embarked upon a solidly achieving Main Street program, was in danger of fading into stagnation and anonymous sprawl. DeLand is ripe with history, a place where 12 years ago the grand Victorian getaways of the once rich and famous were encrusted with grime or masked with ill-conceived fake facades. DeLand's downtown was 75 percent vacant. Much of the core six-block area was boarded up and dilapidated.

"It was a real chance for a different vision in the downtown, one of survival really," says Mayor David Rigsby. "And it happened. It's been dramatic."

MainStreet DeLand developed and implemented an economic restructuring and business recruitment plan to boost downtown occupancy rates. With unbridled determination, the group sold memberships, recruited businesses, spruced up facades, courted sponsorships, and hosted special events and promotions – from festivals to radio commercials.

MainStreet DeLand persuaded the city to remove the parking meters that lined downtown streets for more than 50 years and were long seen as an obstacle to flourishing retail. Then the group asked the city to give them the meters. Refurbished and decorated, those meters are now placed in key off-street locations to solicit donations for downtown improvements.

The center of DeLand is flush with three National Historic Register neighborhoods, a distinctly different civic environment from the typical Florida boomtown. The seat of one of Florida's largest counties, West Volusia County, DeLand is also host to myriad government institutions. As a result, most residents of the county visit downtown DeLand at least once a year. "We're definitely a government center," says Maureen France, executive director of MainStreet DeLand Association, Inc. "We count that as a strength."

But DeLand's single greatest strength may rest in its ability to form solid, innovative, collaborative partnerships to maximize its resources and explore new avenues for change.

"MainStreet DeLand's success is due in large part to its ability to form coalitions within the community," U.S. Rep. John L. Mica states. "Downtown DeLand's revitalization has been a total community effort with the equal participation of the business and government communities, as well as individuals."

The city of DeLand lends it political muscle and creative thinking to keeping downtown vibrant. Two years ago a DeLand institution, the Fish Memorial Hospital, abandoned its eight-acre downtown complex. But downtown leaders were already at work, courting a new county judicial complex. When the cost of demolishing existing structures proved prohibitive, MainStreet DeLand raised sufficient community and media support to persuade the hospital authority to deed the property to the city, and the city authorized $300,000 for demolition before giving the property to the county for construction of its new judicial offices. Leaders call it downtown's crowning achievement.

The area's premier institution for advanced education, Stetson University, is also a significant player in the community's revitalization, lending everything from the marketing research generated by class projects to fund-raising support and the use of campus facilities. Stetson remains a major financial partner and sponsor of downtown activities, as in its current planning for an international music festival in DeLand.

Today, DeLand's ground-floor retail and office spaces are fully occupied. With a modest public investment of $2 million from local government and about $2 million in state grants, the MainStreet DeLand effort has spurred $50 million-plus in private downtown investment. High-quality shops, galleries, and restaurants are housed in beautifully restored historic buildings and line downtown avenues. Eighty-five new businesses have sprung up, and 425 new jobs have been created.

But DeLand isn't through yet. MainStreet has initiated a plan to purchase and restore the 1921 Athens Theater, a vacant, dilapidated vaudeville house and cinema, with the promise of transforming a downtown eyesore into an economic stimulus. More than $1 million in seed money for the project was collected through a dogged search for grants and local contributions.

"The Main Street program has been like a dream come true for us," says Mayor Rigsby.

Because of the Main Street approach, DeLand has become a vigorous model for other Florida cities that are striking out against stagnancy and forging new partnerships for change.