MINNEOLA, Fla. – It’s hard to find a county in Florida experiencing more development than Lake County.
The sprawling region west of Orlando was once home to many rural cities and towns that are increasingly becoming more unrecognizable.
The development in Minneola is noticeable from the Florida Turnpike as acres of rolling hills are ready for thousands of new homes.
“I remember when there was nothing out here,” Michelle Fletcher said.
Fletcher moved to Minneola when she was 18 years old. She’s now the general manager of Lil Anthony’s Pizza along U.S. Highway 27, a spot where locals often discuss their changing city.
“People either don’t like it or they do like it,” Fletcher said. “Keeping the inside of Minneola small is what 99% of my guests would like.”
According to Census data, Minneola’s population was estimated to be more than 16,000 as of 2022, a 16.6% jump in just the last two years. A big catalyst for that growth was when the Minneola interchange opened along the Turnpike.
“All of sudden we became a bedroom community for Orlando,” Mayor Pat Kelley said.
Kelley has been the mayor since 2008. Since then, he says he’s been able to grow Minneola completely debt-free without having to raise taxes.
“Cities plan on all this growth and then they take on debt with all this growth,” he said. “Then, all of sudden, the growth doesn’t come, and then it burdens the current residents. That’s why we’re on a cash basis. We spend as we go.”
Kelley says he also works closely with developers to make sure roads and other infrastructure are in place before the homes are built.
“Sometimes it’s easier for the developers to build the roads than for the government to build them,” he said. “They can actually build them cheaper and faster.”
While the mayor is pleased with how he’s handled the growth, some people think they can handle it better.
Local resident Nathan Focht is running to unseat Kelley in the upcoming mayoral election.
“I’ve been out knocking on a ton of doors these last couple of months,” Focht said.
He credits Kelley for keeping the city financially sound but says impact fees deserve even more credit.
“We’re cash-flow positive, but that’s because of all of this new stuff that’s been paid in,” Focht said. “In ten years, when roads fail, when septic fails, water lines need to be replaced, there’s no more impact fees. The houses are already here, and that’s when your neighborhood collapses.”
But Kelley says he is planning for the future, and he’s doing so with his family in mind.
“I have a daughter and know she’s going to be in this area with grandchildren,” he said. “Twenty years from now, I can drive through and known I was part of this community and what it is, and be proud if it.”
Minneola will also soon be home to a new AdventHealth and one of Central Florida’s most well-known breweries. Crooked Can Brewing Co. is planning to open a new 40,000-square-foot brewery and headquarters in the emerging Hills of Minneola area near the Turnpike.
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