CITY SERIES: Clermont — Gem of the hills

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, February 2014 • Photos by Fred Lopez


Clermont is a city with many faces. If you view the thousands of rooftops from the Highway 27 or Florida Turnpike interchanges, it appears to be a bedroom community for commuters into Orlando. If you exit Highway 27 and go east on State Road 50, Clermont’s athletic side appears with the National Training Center complex. Travel west along SR-50 for few miles and there is the city’s picturesque, historic side — the face of Clermont that many of its newest residents rarely, if ever, have seen.

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Warm weather, beautiful lakes, and rolling hills — a rarity in Florida — have drawn people to South Lake’s southernmost city for generations. The story is the same whether talking about pioneers from Georgia who settled the area in 1852 or modern-day triathlon athletes looking for a year-round training ground or transplants looking for a laid-back community away from stressful jobs in the city. Early on, it was described as the “gem” in Florida’s hill country, and that description continues to entice new residents. Since the turn of the 21st century, Clermont became one of the fastest-growing cities in Florida with a population growth rate that increased by more than 215 percent, according to city-data.com.


VITAL STATS
FOUNDED:1884
INCORPORATED: 1916
POPULATION: 30,201 (2013)
SIZE: 14.9 square miles (June 2013)

Source: City of Clermont

PUBLIC OFFICIALS
City Manager: Darren Gray
Mayor: Harold Turville Jr.
Council Members: Ray Goodgame, Keith Mullins, Timothy Bates, Rick Van Wagner
Police Chief: Charles Broadway
Fire Chief: Carle L. Bishop


The area’s natural scenery was a jewel in disguise for early settlers. Life was hard in the area that the U.S. government had deemed as “swamp and overflowed,” before granting it to Florida in 1850. Swampland did not deter early pioneers who emigrated — mostly from Georgia — to homestead the land in 1852. Tomatoes and cattle were much more predominant than citrus until the 20th century. In fact, Clermont was the “tomato capital” of Florida until deep freezes during the winter of 1894-95 decimated the crops. Many residents left for work elsewhere, but the timber and turpentine industry soon followed. By the 1920s, hundreds of citrus trees were planted and a short time later the Clermont Fruit Company formed. Citrus was on its way to becoming the new cash crop.

Clermont resident Charles Konsler volunteers at the Historic Village’s WWII Museum.

Clermont resident Charles Konsler volunteers at the Historic Village’s WWII Museum.

When World War II ended in 1945, veteran Charles Konsler decided to join his brother in Clermont to start a welding and steel fabricating business. He remembers seeing the land being cleared to make way for even more citrus groves. “Clermont had not come into its greatness yet,” said the veteran pilot, who flew 74 missions over Germany during the war. “There have been a lot of changes since I arrived… mostly good ones but others not so much.” Konsler was among the Clermont residents who watched both the rise and the fall of the citrus industry. Like the tomato farmers, the citrus growers were also victims of Florida’s unpredictable winters.

“The freezes of 1983, 1985, and 1989 changed the character of Clermont,” says Ann Dupee, a Clermont resident since 1967 and the former owner and publisher of the South Lake Press. “Those freezes were so bad you could hear the trees break, and it killed the orange groves.”

After the first freeze in ‘83, growers replanted; then in ’85, more trees were wiped out. After the 1989 freeze, most didn’t replant and the groves sat vacant. Landowners were selling and developers were buying.

“We weren’t paying much attention,” says Dupee. “The turnpike entrance onto the east-west expressway made it accessible for people from Orlando to come this way. Prices were lower and they could get more house. However, schools got too crowded; it was tragic.”

Today, Clermont’s community leaders are paying more attention and creating a vision for the future that encompasses what both new and longtime residents want. Arts and entertainment are high on the list and the City of Clermont recently bought the 69,000-square-foot Celebration of Praise Church just off Highway 27. It will become the largest banquet facility in Lake County and will be a new venue for groups needing the 250-seat auditorium.

“The city is at the beginning stages of assessing the best use of the property,” says City Manager Darren Gray. “In January, the City Council approved having architects create formal plans for building a new police department at the site, using part of the structure that is already there. The amenities that came with the property, including the adult and children’s swimming pools, basketball court and the largest auditorium in Lake County, all offer many exciting opportunities.”

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Clermont is not the agricultural center it once was, but the city is embracing its residential growth and commercial development. The downtown area is experiencing robust commerce, especially with the expansion of the popular Sunday morning Farmers Market. It also hopes to become one of Lake County’s top destinations for people looking for things to do.

clermont-0214-003“The city plans to continue to make our downtown and waterfront park areas a priority. Through the visioning process conducted in 2013, the community made it clear that the arts and entertainment are high priorities,” adds Gray. “As we move into the next phase, with branding and master planning, we definitely will be incorporating arts and entertainment into our plans.”


HAVE SOME FUN

South Lake Bicycle Trail
Also known as the Lake Minneola Scenic Trail, it is a rails-to-trails adventure that takes bicyclists and hikers through some of the most majestic scenery in Lake County. It’s a workout though, with hills that can be challenging for weekend warriors.

Clermont Waterfront Bikes and Boards
No bike, no problem. Just rent one right near the trail. The City of Clermont awarded Tim Engle a five-year contract to operate the city’s bike, paddleboard, and kayak concessions at Clermont’s waterfront.

Moonlight Players
Clermont’s award-winning theatrical troupe is beginning its 20th year with productions like “Man of La Mancha,” “South Pacific,” and “On Golden Pond.”

President’s Hall of Fame
It may sound a little kitschy but this wax museum serves as a tribute to U.S. presidents. Don’t miss the miniature replica of the White House, which has traveled the country since 1976 and just returned home two years ago.

Read All About It
The South Lake Press, the area’s newspaper, debuted in 1913 as the Clermont Clarion. Publisher W.E. Rorabaugh was a transplant from Des Moines, Iowa. Price of an annual subscription was $1.25.

Olympic Ideals
The National Training Center, open since 2001 in Clermont, is the home base of some of the nation’s most accomplished amateur and professional athletes. Dozens of Olympians have trained there, including Tyson Gay, the former American record holder in the 100-meter dash and 2012 silver medalist.

The True Center of Florida
The intersection of State Road 50 and Highway 27 is the exact center of Florida. From that point, it is equidistant from the east and west coasts and from the northern and southern tips of the state.

clermont-0214-007A Toast of its Own
Clermont’s Lakeridge Winery is the largest premium winery in Florida with 127 acres and a 28,000-square-foot building. The winery can produce up to 1,500 cases per day.


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