If you need evidence that investors and developers are feeling sunnier about Central Florida’s economy, look at what’s happening on International Drive.
In the middle of the famous tourist corridor, on the grave of the defunct Mercado shopping village, a 400-foot-tall observation wheel is rising, dwarfing a collection of new shops and restaurants being built near its base. A few blocks north, redevelopment continues on the Wyndham Orlando resort. Across the street from that, developers say, they’ll build a $200 million entertainment center anchored by the world’s tallest roller coaster.
Keep going and you’ll reach the new Artegon Marketplace, a $70 million redevelopment of the failed Festival Bay Mall.
By conservative estimates, the projects represent half a billion dollars in spending and the most explosive burst of activity along I-Drive in more than a decade. And they’ll create hundreds of new jobs
“There has been a huge resurgence on I-Drive,” said Maria Triscari, who heads the International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s amazing everything that’s happening.”
The projects, if they all pan out, could radically alter the face of the tourist district and, possibly, change its personality.
Historically, I-Drive, with more than 100 hotels and 200 restaurants, has served as a bedroom community for Central Florida tourism — a place where people eat and sleep before commuting to the theme parks.
The projects underway — and those being planned — won’t challenge the dominance of Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld. But they could help the corridor become its own destination — the world’s longest, skinniest theme park.
“Potentially, this sort of extends the theme-park experience out onto the Drive,” said Michael Terry, a tourism consultant and instructor at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “It makes the ‘stay experience’ more fun.”
The work parallels a rebound in tourism that has helped make Orlando one of the biggest job gainers in the state. After falling to 46.6 million in 2009, the total number of visitors has climbed each year, hitting a record 59 million in 2013. So far this year, hotels have reported strong occupancy numbers and higher room rates.
Those numbers create investor confidence.
“To quote Bill Clinton, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’” said former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty. “Resort development follows the economy, and we’re in a great time for those sort of investments.”
Crotty, who served from 2001 to 2011, saw the best and worst of Central Florida’s economy during his time in office. He was mayor when unemployment was mostly a rumor — 2.8 percent in April 2006 — and when it soared to 11.9 percent in January 2010. He’s as relieved as anyone that I-Drive, dubbed “downtown Orange County” by his administration, has come back strong.
“It’s all about time and place with these investments,” Crotty said at a recent I-Drive luncheon. “And we’ve got it going on right now.”
Like Crotty, Wyndham General Manager Rich Larkin said I-Drive investors have been emboldened by the improving economy. Work on the Wyndham property had been scheduled to begin in 2007 or 2008 but was postponed when the bottom fell out.
“Now,” Larkin said, “you see everybody moving forward.”
While welcome news to tourism leaders, the projects aren’t without a downside.
More attractions could exacerbate I-Drive’s traffic problems. County and city officials are building bus-only lanes to give visitors an alternative to waiting in traffic, but those are likely to do little to ease overall congestion.
Terry, who once managed I-Drive hotels, said that traffic, while a mundane topic, is a serious threat to the corridor’s future.
“There’s no doubt it’s an issue,” he said. “And it’ll hurt business if they don’t address it.”
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