ORLANDO-US 441 north from Downtown Orlando in Orange County to the far edges of Leesburg, FL in Lake County, 45 miles away, is rapidly evolving into a ribbon of retail. The population mass is still lacking in Lake for mega projects, but developers are carving out retail niches in this county of 1,400 lakes and a 1999 population of 202,207.

For example, in Lake County alone in the last two years, about $100 million in new commercial development covering one million sf has sprouted along a 25-mile stretch of highway in the Golden Triangle cities of Tavares, Eustis and Mount Dora, all about 30 miles northwest of Downtown Orlando.

The newest business opening in December on US 441 in Mount Dora is the 20,000-sf, estimated $2-million Office Depot unit. That project is surrounded by ventures at the traffic-heavy Eudora Road and US 441 hub that have either opened or expanded in the last 12 months.

Among them are the $15-million, 250,000-sf Wal-Mart Supercenter; the $3-million, 40,000-sf Eckerd Drugs; the $2-million 30,000-sf Blockbuster; and the 80,000-sf, $8-million SouthTrust Bank branch.

Outparcels have been snapped by the Perkins and Shoney’s restaurant chains. First on the Eudora Road-US 441 corner was the $6-million, 100,000-sf Kmart store whose officials spotted the niche about 15 years ago. Now competitors are chipping away at Kmart’s once-dominant market share in the area.

New car dealerships are creating an automobile row on a 10-mile stretch from Mount Dora to Eustis.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that shoppers are gravitating to this market area,” says Tom Cook, marketing vice president in the Orlando division of Carter & Associates-ONCOR. “Activity follows activity.”

Land prices are a major factor in a company’s decision to relocate or open a branch in Lake County. For example, Wal-Mart is planning a 1.2 million-sf warehouse/distribution complex in Leesburg, about 45 miles from Downtown Orlando. The industrial dirt the retailer is seeking goes for about $8,000 per acre or 18 cents per sf. In Orlando, that same dirt, if it were available, would cost about $100,000 per acre or about $2.30 per sf.

Wal-Mart’s land purchase will be in a remote rural area, but land in Lake County’s 750-acre industrial park in the fast-developing south end of the county, goes for just $35,000 per acre or 80 cents per sf.

“Your profit is made or lost on the effective price you pay for the land, no matter if it is a hotel, office, industrial or retail project,” says Robin L. Webb, vice president/general manager of Arvida Realty Services’ commercial division in Winter Park, FL.

For developers considering ventures in Lake County, there’s no danger of running out of buildable land. Lake’s 953 square-mile area, largely undeveloped, could almost swallow Rhode Island.

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