The City of Tavares is like the children’s story, “The Little Engine That Could.” Instead of one mountain to climb, the city had several, but the power of positive thinking among city leaders transformed a non-descript and economically challenged county seat into one of America’s unique communities.
story: Mary Ann DeSantis | photos: Fred Lopez+Mary Ann DeSantis
Spend an afternoon sitting in the Tavares Waterfront District and you will see something very few people have the opportunity to watch — seaplanes landing and taking off on a 3,000-foot virtual runway on Lake Dora. Only a few short years ago, the 4,500-acre lake was just a backdrop for government buildings in the town where Lake County residents went for jury duty. Tavares certainly wasn’t known for waterfront attractions.
That all changed in April 2010 when the Tavares Seaplane Base opened and started attracting not only seaplanes but also businesses that cater to the pilots who gently glide into Lake Dora and onto the tarmac. Other kinds of family-friendly businesses followed, and today, finding a parking spot near the historic Wooton Park in the waterfront district can be challenging, especially on weekends. Children are squealing with delight inside the splash park, families are boarding the Orange Blossom Cannonball steam train, and adventurous souls are taking seaplane rides. And don’t forget the boaters who dock in the new marina near the seaplane base.
“In 2005, the economy was great everywhere in Lake County except Tavares,” says City Administrator John Drury. “We had only one restaurant, and our challenge was to turn a vacant downtown into a vibrant downtown.”
Then-Mayor Nancy Clutts organized community conversations about the future of Tavares. She invited the city’s stakeholders, including residents, business leaders, governmental agencies, and others to answer a fairly simple question: where should the city go over the next five to 10 years. For more than a year, the diverse committee held “visioning workshops,” took photos, and made notes about what they liked and didn’t like. Their conversations evolved into a total rebranding of the city.
In 2006, Drury was hired to be the city administrator. Prior to his career as a city administrator in Stowe, Vermont, he had managed airports in Collier and Hillsborough counties, as well as in New England. It was just kismet that he was a pilot. As he ate lunch one day, he watched a seaplane land on Lake Dora. The pilot climbed out and walked through the mud and weeds to reach O’Keefe’s Irish Pub.
“I thought to myself, ‘What if we give pilots a ramp so they don’t have to walk through muck and water,’” he remembers. “The idea was lock, step, and sync with the committee’s vision for a civic and entrepreneurial approach to rebranding the city. We wanted to become Lake County’s waterfront capital and at the same time, build on our history.”
That history, according to Drury, included seaplane landings on Lake Eustis in early 1914, only four years after the aircraft was invented in France. The first — a Benoist airboat — was piloted by Tony Janus, the first licensed airline pilot in the world. A month later, a “Thomas Flying Boat” landed with passenger Clara Adams, who became known as the “maiden of maiden voyages.” A friend of Amelia Earhart, Adams spent her life proving airplanes were the future for passenger transportation.[span4]
Current Population: 13,993
Population change since 2000: +44.3 percent
Median Resident Age: 52.5
Median House or Condo Value: $120,386
Mayor: Robert Wolfe
City Council: Bob Grenier, Norm Hope, Lori Pfister, Kirby Smith
City Administrator: John Drury
Fire Chief: Richard Keith
Police chief: Stoney Lubins
Although Lake Eustis could claim those historical seaplane landings, the folks around Lake Dora quickly realized seaplanes were the “niche and wow” they needed for the future. They also wanted a strong economy that wasn’t dependent on just one thing, like housing.
“We took a very civic and entrepreneurial approach,” explains Drury. “We knew if we provided jobs, parks, and entertainment the rest would come.”
And it didn’t hurt that Tavares was smack-dab in the center of the state. “What better place to stop and refuel your seaplane on the way to the Keys or Bahamas,” says Drury.
Tavares ignored the naysayers and skeptics and moved forward with its vision and plan to become “America’s Seaplane City,” a tagline that was immediately copyrighted when city leaders knew their idea was about to take off.
With an $8.3 million investment, funded mostly by a utility bond, Tavares was able to build the seaplane base and an aviation fueling station. Wooton Park was also revitalized with a colorful splash park that has attracted more than 70,000 children since it opened.
“Some people felt we were taking out loans, but the majority of the community supported the plans,” says Drury. “Everything we built is self-sustaining so we are not dependent on tax dollars.”
Nearly 6,000 seaplanes — more than anyone estimated would come — have flown into the Tavares Seaplane Base. Florida pilots are regulars, but it has also attracted pilots from Mexico and Europe, many looking to buy fuel.
“We’ve sold hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel,” Drury adds.
The city asked voters a year ago if they wanted to purchase more land for the waterfront, and the answer was a resounding yes. Today, a new conference and event center on the site of Tavares’ historic pier that was demolished decades ago is under construction. Drury predicts the two-story facility will become a premier wedding venue with its spectacular views of Lake Dora and will attract the kinds of businesses associated with weddings.
“Once we started investing in ourselves, then others started investing in us. Growth is happening very rapidly now,” he says. “It’s amazing the amount of private investment dollars that have come into the city. Our economy is completely refocused on business rather than housing.”
He proudly recalls when the seaplane base was first discussed. “We didn’t just develop a plan and let it sit on shelf,” he says. “After all, a vision without implementation is just a hallucination.”
By the time Major Alexander St. Clair Abrams arrived in Lake County in 1876, he had already had an illustrious career as a Confederate soldier, a newspaperman, and a lawyer. He was only 31 years old.
The New Orleans native was also a wise businessman who knew the value of getting and honoring early investors. He named the streets in Tavares after people who helped him build the city after it was founded in 1880. St. Clair-Abrams also invested $500,000 of his own money to develop Tavares, which eventually included an opera house, sawmill, hotel, and office buildings. By 1883, he was also part-owner of the Tavares, Orlando and Atlantic Railroad and the Peninsular Land, Transportation and Manufacturing Company.
“St. Clair Abrams was confident that Tavares would be a huge city of 100,000 people someday,” says Bob Grenier, who was president of the Tavares Historical Society for seven years and is a current city councilman. “The Major would be absolutely delighted to see what the city has become and how we’ve built on our historical foundation. I believe he would be front and center if he were here.”
One of St. Clair Abrams biggest disappointments was that Tavares, named after one of his Spanish ancestors, did not become the state capital. To him, moving the capital made perfect sense because of Tavares’ central location, and he lobbied hard to make it happen. However, most of the population lived in North Florida in the 1880s, and state legislators considered Tavares to be South Florida.
He was instrumental, however, in the creation of Lake County in May 1887 from parts of Orange and Sumter counties. “He competed with Leesburg and spent a lot of money to make Tavares the county seat, which happened in July 1888,” says Grenier.
After an 1888 fire destroyed several downtown buildings, including the Peninsular Hotel, St. Clair Abrams constructed the Pioneer Building near the hotel’s site. The Pioneer Building was completed in 1890 but was moved in 1922 to make room for a new courthouse, which is now home now to the Lake County Historical Museum.
Back-to-back freezes in 1894 and 1895 drove many investors and residents out of Tavares, including St. Clair Abrams. He moved to Jacksonville to resume his career as a lawyer in 1895, but his legacy in Tavares remains. Many of the streets are named for his family: Irma Street (now Main Street) for his daughter; Alfred Street for his son; and Joanna Street for his wife. His home, the first built in Tavares, still exists and is being renovated by a local couple.
Lura Messer Hall was only 3 years old when her family moved to Tavares in 1936. Like most small Southern towns, the Great Depression hit Tavares hard, but Mrs. Hall says it was the perfect place to grow up.
“I can’t think of any other place I’d rather have been,” she says. “We knew everyone in town and even their dogs’ and cats’ names. We didn’t use street names but rather landmarks. We’d say, ‘Go down to the drugstore and turn left.’”
Her father, G.C. Messer, was the only policeman in Tavares for many years. When he first began in 1936, the city could not afford a car for him but gave him a bicycle.
“He rode that bike to make his rounds at night,” remembers Mrs. Hall. “He never had any trouble that I know of.”
Her father, who served in law enforcement until his death in 1949, was also quite inventive and rigged his “own means of communication.” The family had a telephone but his nearby office did not. He placed a pole with a big yellow light near the front yard. If he received a phone call, one of his children or wife would flip the switch and the yellow light let him know to come home for his message.
As a child, she spent a lot of time in the water. “I had friends who lived on Lake Dora and we went swimming together all time and then played tennis at night,” she remembers.
Tavares didn’t have a movie theatre so young people would ride the Greyhound bus to Mount Dora or Eustis to see picture shows. Mrs. Hall fondly remembers her first taste of shrimp at Orlando’s Morrison Cafeteria. “I was about 12, and I was sold on shrimp after that.”
She married her high school sweetheart, T. Keith Hall, shortly after graduation. They moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for seven years where they worked as house parents at the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home while her husband attended college. He later served as the Lake County Tax Assessor from 1971-1997, and the couple raised their son, Stephen, in Tavares. Her husband passed away in 2002 just before the couple’s 50th anniversary.
Mrs. Hall now lives in Lake Port Square in Leesburg, but she gets to Tavares every Sunday for church at the First Baptist Church of Tavares. And she says, “I don’t want to go across the Florida line again.”
Making national news
The thunderous booms of propane tanks exploding at the Blue Rhino Propane plant during the late evening of July 29 catapulted Tavares into the national news. Approximately 53,000 20-pound propane tanks used for gas grills popped like popcorn, and the noise awoke county residents as far as 20 miles away. Eight plant workers were injured, four critically.
As news media focused on the fiery glow and possible causes, the behind-the-scenes story illustrated Tavares’ community spirit and steadfastness when it comes to getting things done. Within two hours, an incident command center and a victim-families staging area were set up. Shelters were opened for those people whose homes were evacuated.
“I am so proud of Lake County. I am so proud of this city and the way this was handled so quickly,” said City Administrator John Drury, who had been in Orlando at a conference when the incident happened. “By the time I arrived, (everything) had been taken care of in an exceptional way.”
The Tavares Blue Rhino plant, a division of Ferrellgas, opened in 2004 and produces 2.3 million tanks for gas grills annually.