A stroll through downtown Oviedo is like taking a tiny step back in time. Blink and you could miss an array of mom-and-pop shops, many of which are still doing business in old buildings reminiscent of a bygone era.
There's Girda's Sewing Shop, a small alterations shop housed in a 90-year-old building that resembles an elongated cottage. Girda's has no sign outside and no phone inside, but that doesn't matter because everyone knows where it is.
Next door is a dry-cleaning business, complete with a noisy window air conditioner and a friendly manager with a Southern accent. A block over is a barbershop that sports an old-fashioned blue-and-white—striped barber pole. There's also the Town House Restaurant, a diner that's been on Broadway since 1961. There you'll find checked tablecloths, friendly waitresses and heaping plates of eggs, grits and bacon for about $4.
Across the street from the diner is the giant First Baptist Church of Oviedo, perhaps one of few structures that will still be here in five years, if city planners have their way.
There are plans to widen Broadway Street, and the extra lanes mean that much of downtown's history and charm is about to be wiped away. Oviedo hopes to go upscale in the process.
"Our desire is to have more of a Winter Park look that would blend more with our character and style," says Mayor Thomas Walters, who envisions something akin to Park Avenue.
Plans are sketchy at this point, but this is not just wishful thinking. Oviedo is already building a new "town center" called Oviedo on the Park, about two miles from downtown. The 50-acre mixed-use development will include apartments, town houses, office and retail space and two lakes.
"We're looking for it to be like Celebration or Baldwin Park so people can live, work and play all in one area," says Susan Vernon-Devlin, the city's public information officer.
Some people, however, would rather not see downtown Oviedo flattened in the name of progress.
When Girda Wilson opened her sewing shop, Oviedo had one traffic light. She was drawn to the sleepy epicenter of the sleepy town, where even today you can still find chickens running in the streets.
"This is the history, and once you tear it down you can't bring it back," Wilson says. If the city condemns the property via eminent domain, Wilson doubts she would reopen her shop somewhere else.
Kathy Carmichael, a manager for Oviedo City Cleaners Laundry, Wilson's landlord, has the same doubts. Like many longtime downtown businesses, Carmichael's laundry has been grandfathered in at its location. If they moved they'd have to update their dry-cleaning equipment.
"It's a shame we have to lose the old downtown," Carmichael says. "That's why people come here."
When Carmichael's store changed hands 25 years ago, the only traffic you were likely to encounter was on Sundays, when church let out. But that was OK because all the businesses downtown were closed Sundays. It's the same today, with the exception of a handful of chain stores.
In 1986, 6,000 people lived in Oviedo. That number nearly doubled to 11,000 by 1990. Today nearly 33,000 reside in the city, and city planners have estimated it will hit 50,000 by 2010.
City of Oviedo officials have been talking about widening Broadway, also called State Road 426, for about 25 years, but they never had the money to do it. Past city councils, such as one five years ago, passed on the issue because it didn't seem necessary, and because they wanted to preserve the small-town feel.
This time the city says it's serious. Vernon-Devlin says "the city wants to preserve all of the businesses it has," but it won't be possible under the proposed expansion plan, which includes buying out businesses, and possibly homes as well. She hopes most businesses will relocate to the new downtown, though it's unlikely they could afford the rent.
Oviedo Deputy Mayor Dominic Persampiere says the council has earmarked $20 million toward the $60 million to $70 million project, enough to pay for the first of the three phases. Oviedo is looking to the federal government for the rest.
"Times have changed," Persampiere says. "Back then the focus was revitalizing the old downtown. No one expected the growth down east, and that has become a gridlock. They had different priorities. The growth is there; the infrastructure is not."
But the expansion could simply draw in additional residents at a faster pace, something even Walters acknowledges.
"One of the things that's foremost is saving that historic small-town feel, but of course when you widen it will change," Walters says. "The growth has already been predetermined. We want to prepare for the growth that's inevitable."
The reality is that the quiet, suburban lifestyle that draws people here is already a memory. Much of the city's open space is staked out for development. A large parcel at the corner of Mitchell Hammock and State Road 426 will become a new medical center; less than a half-mile away on Mitchell Hammock near State Road 434, new stores have already filled a strip mall.
Street improvement projects are going on all over the city at breakneck speed, from repaving neighborhood streets in Alafaya Woods to a recently opened extension shooting Oviedo Boulevard through to Mitchell Hammock to new sidewalks along Mitchell Hammock near the city's YMCA.
Oviedo and Sanford are among the few remaining Seminole County cities that still have their original historic downtowns, says Del Seaman, co-owner of Artistic Hand, a downtown Oviedo business that would only be impacted in terms of traffic growth.
"Oviedo really has a lot of history in it, but it's like a disease," says Seaman. "Once they widen one street and destroy the history, it will make it easier to destroy one more. We're going to lose the history and charm."
"I think that it won't feel like a little town anymore," says Leigh-Ann Tepper, owner of the Town House Restaurant on Broadway. "It will just be a place."[email protected]