DEBARY — Terri Hoag was skeptical of DeBary when she moved there in the mid-2000s so her husband could take a job in Maitland. Coming from Philadelphia, the arts patron was taken aback about the lack of things to do.
“I said to [my husband], ‘Where did you move us to?’”
Even before it was incorporated in 1993, the small city of 22,000 along the St. Johns River in Volusia County has been an unofficial retirement community, with residents mostly in spread-out subdivisions and sparse commercial development along U.S. Highway 17-92.
“The county allowed us to grow the way the market drove us,” said Carmen Rosamonda, DeBary’s city manager and former mayor. “DeBary doesn’t have a downtown.”
But now, a downtown is exactly what city officials are planning to build. With a master plan two years in the making, the city is looking to transform the southern edge of town along Highway 17-92 into a vibrant, mixed-use main street, with shopping, restaurants, arts and entertainment.
DeBary also is looking to be a hub for eco-tourists, capitalizing on the three state bike trails that meet inside it, and by adding a 170-acre preserve to its current natural attractions such as Gemini Springs.
For Rosamonda, the downtown plan represents the last opportunity to create a beating heart for the city.
“This is our last frontier,” he said. “We’ll build it out, and that will be it.”
Resident Elizabeth Jackson said she would welcome some new businesses. “I would love to see shopping, something similar to a downtown DeLand area,” Jackson said. “I think if it’s done right, it could be really good for the community.”
But she is concerned that the plan could move too quickly, killing the small-town character of DeBary with big city problems. “My fear is that they’re not going to pay attention to details, and they’re going to take a really beautiful town and overpopulate it,” she said.
DeBary is one of the more affluent cities in Volusia. The median income is $71,554, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median home value is $358,000, according to Zillow, about $13,000 more than metro Orlando.
Two years ago, Jackson, her husband and their five kids moved from nearby Deltona, population 95,000.
“We loved the feel [of DeBary],” Jackson said. “It’s sort of Mayberry-ish.”
A resident of the gated Riviera Bella community, Jackson said that while she wants the town to stay small, she admits it could use some variety of entertainment. “Just an area that has character and isn’t that cookie-cutter,” she said.
Hoag, director of the Gateway Center for the Arts on 17-92, said there are more people since she moved to town, but not much more to do. She sees the swiftly filling summer camps and the packed food truck nights at her center as evidence the town is yearning for more activity.
“You can just see that the community is ready for this [downtown],” she said.
“Our residents have been screaming, ‘We need restaurants. We need shops,’” said Shari Simmans, director of communications and economic development downtown.
The lack of development is exactly what attracted Simmans to move to the area from Washington, D.C., in 2018. She said the growth happening in Central Florida was a topic of discussion in the political circles she ran in.
“I was sending notes to my friends. ‘Look at where I’m going. This is where it’s happening,’” Simmans said. “There’s so much opportunity to shape the future of Central Florida here.”
If all goes according to plan, development could begin as early as the first half of next year. North of the SunRail train station on 17-92 will be roughly 500 apartments. Shell Road, which diverts from 17-92, will become the city’s main street, leading to another 279 townhomes.
The plan will add more than 70,000 square feet of commercial/retail space, mostly on the first floor of the apartment buildings and in live/work units. As proposed by St. Petersburg-based developer Mosaic Development, the downtown will also include art murals reflecting the city’s history and ecology, as well as outdoor venue space and a brick-paved roads.
Frank Chavez, owner of Pepe’s Cantina in Winter Park, opened his latest location in DeBary in February. A resident of the city for the past three years, he was partially drawn by what he hopes the plan will bring.
“Right now, we’re probably the most expensive restaurant in DeBary,” he said. “We’re breaking that ice.”
He likes the connection to SunRail, but he says it will have to start running on weekends for this plan to work. “If it’s only a weekday thing, I don’t think it’s going to bring anything beneficial,” he said. “I don’t think anyone from Winter Park is going to grab a train just to come to DeBary during the day.”
Jackson hasn’t seen the plan in detail, but said she’s heard bits and pieces from different communities online and around the city.
She worries about crowding, telling a story about her child having to share a seat with three other children on the school bus. “I’m not a politician,” she said. “I’m just a mom. And the most important things to us moms is our children. They have to get the schools right.”
The developer will have to take the plan to the Volusia County School Board for final approval, but Simmans believes that won’t be an issue, given that the proposed units are only about 60% of what the area is zoned for.
Simmans says it’s the city’s job to make sure everyone knows what’s coming. “When folks hear development, they get nervous because they don’t want to go from 10,000 to 60,000,” Simmans said. “Our role is to communicate.”
Rosamonda doesn’t want to lose the small-town feel, either. “Your core values and your growth management have got to match,” he said.
That’s why he insisted on features such as balconies for the apartments, so that residents could see each other on the street.
He also says that after the construction of downtown and a couple more housing divisions, DeBary will be completely built out, capping the population around 28,000.
Designated a Florida Trail Town and the convergence point for three state trails, the city is also hoping to become a destination for eco-tourists.
Nestled along a scenic stretch of the St. Johns River, there’s a parcel of land DeBary hopes to preserve. It’s a green space with a tall canopy of live oak trees, home to turtles, alligators and bald eagles.
Near what the city hopes will become Riverbend South Park, the 900-unit community of Rivington is springing up with new construction, highlighting DeBary’s urgent desire for land conservation.
“We have lots of residential development out this way. I want this space green for people to use by foot, bike or kayak, not a private enclave,” said DeBary Mayor Karen Chasez. “It almost doesn’t matter where people stand on social or political issues, the idea that they might get access to the river through public green space, and that land would be preserved, appeals to almost everyone.”
The city has applied for grants from Volusia Forever and Florida Forever for the $3.9 million needed to buy the land.
“We’re a small city with a low tax rate, which we will always keep. We will have to leverage grant funds each step of the way,” Chasez said.
If the DeBary park comes to fruition, plans for the parcel include kayak rentals, a walking and biking trail along the river, places to fish and a freshwater research center.
Rosamonda said he believes the parks and bike trails will be a major selling point for new residents.
“You can live on Main Street, get on your bike and ride to Titusville, St. Augustine, Ocala and St. Petersburg,” he said.
This story is part of an occasional series called Moving Out focusing on growth in metro Orlando suburbs and the conflicts it can cause.