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From SunRail to Split Oak: Here’s what made news in Osceola County in 2018

Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer is congratulated by supporters at the Kissimmee café Buchito after she beat challenger Wanda Rentas in the Nov. 6 General Election.

The end of a year brings reflection, and here at the Osceola News-Gazette, we are looking back at some of the biggest local news stories to impact our community in 2018.

From environmental activism at Split Oak Forest to the aftermath of a school shooting in South Florida, 2018 was a time of rapid change – and occasional turbulence – that we invite you to reflect on through our coverage round-up below.

Split Oak Forest

Split Oak Forest remains in jeopardy as the New Year approaches and the regional toll road authority continues to study where to extend Osceola Parkway.

Split Oak Forest is a 2,100-acre public conservation area straddling Osceola and Orange counties off Narcoossee Road near Lake Nona. The land was bought and has been improved over the years with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Osceola and Orange counties jointly purchased Split Oak 20 years ago to offset the impacts of development on the ecosystem, a conservation process called environmental mitigation.

The 2,000-acre Florida scrub forest was to remain untouched and open to the public in perpetuity.

However, Lake Nona developer Tavistock is now building Sunbridge, another massive community in the area. The company has successfully lobbied to extend Osceola Parkway to benefit the new mixed-use development. The extension will also alleviate current traffic woes and the new traffic from Sunbridge.

The Central Florida Expressway Authority, the regional toll road authority, is still considering several plans for the Osceola Parkway extension, some of which would go through the forest.

The Osceola County Commission in December approved a “large-scale” amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan that allows Tavistock to build on land designated for natural resources near Split Oak.

Friends of Split Oak Forest, a grassroots organization founded by St. Cloud resident Valerie Anderson, continues to advocate to protect the forest and fight the corporate interests that could impact it.

New high schools open in Osceola

Tohopekaliga High and NeoCity Academy opened this year as the school district continued to swell with new students.

The district, which has grown from 57,000 to 66,000 students over the past four years, now operates 66 schools in Osceola County.

Tohopekaliga High on Boggy Creek Road, is the first comprehensive high school to open since Liberty High in 2007 and has helped relieve overcrowding in the district. The school’s curriculum is focused on science, technology, engineering, art and math.

NeoCity Academy, a STEM magnet school, is operating from a temporary campus at Gateway High School for the 2018-19 school year.

The new high-tech high school is eschewing traditional teaching methods for a whole new approach to learning that’s more akin to a tech start-up company than a traditional classroom. NeoCity Academy’s permanent campus opens at Osceola County’s technology park NeoCity in 2019. The school welcomed 110 incoming freshmen this year and will add a grade level for the following three academic years. 


NeoCity will shift the economic base of the county, now anchored by tourism and agriculture, toward more high-wage technology employers, officials say. The students are expected to create a local talent pipeline to fill the thousands of high-wage, high-skilled jobs that NeoCity is expected to produce in the coming years.

The two new high schools epitomize the state of Osceola County in many ways. NeoCity Academy is part of concerted local and state government efforts to diversify the local economy and boost wages. Toho High, meanwhile, was built to satisfy Osceola’s booming student population.

2018 Elections

Local government incumbents serving Osceola County mostly won on Election Day.

Returns show that only 52 percent of the 218,754 registered voters in Osceola County cast their ballots in the midterm general election, according to the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections.

Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer, a Democrat, handily defeated her Republican opponent Wanda Rentas, the outgoing vice-mayor of Kissimmee. Rentas’ seat on the Kissimmee Commission was filled by downtown restaurateur Felix Ortiz, who beat out fellow political newcomer and businessman Andrew Jeng.

In the county’s District 4 race, sitting County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb, a Democrat, beat out Republican businessman Adam Michelin.

St. Cloud City Council Member Dave Askew easily beat political newcomer Anthony Busby.

However, incumbent Donny Shroyer was ousted by city voters in favor of political newcomer Keith Trace, whose run for office was preceded by years of serving on civic and community boards.

Meanwhile, state and federal political incumbents – excluding Sen. Bill Nelson who was ousted from office by Gov. Rick Scott – also were kept in office by Osceola voters.

Freshman U.S. Congressman and former state lawmaker Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, easily won another two-year term representing the voters of District 9. Soto beat out Republican opponent Wayne Liebnitzky, a military veteran and St. Cloud businessman.

State Rep. Mike La Rosa won his fourth and final term representing District 42, which covers parts of Kissimmee, St. Cloud, much of Poinciana and a large chunk of Polk County. The St. Cloud real estate broker beat political newcomer and Kissimmee resident Democrat Barbara Cady.

State Rep. Josie Tomkow held on to the Florida House District 39 seat against Democratic challenger Ricky Shirah for the second time this year.

The Florida House District 39 seat was vacated by Republican Rep. Neil Combee, who in 2017, left the Legislature to accept a presidential appointment as state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Tomkow beat Shirah in that special election in May 2018.

Although more Osceola residents voted for Shirah this time around, the 23-year-old Tomkow won the district, which includes Celebration, the Four Corners area and much of Polk County.

In the local race for Ninth Circuit Court Judge, Laura Schaffer, a juvenile defense attorney and a former supervising attorney for the Department of Children and Families, beat Dean Mosley, a criminal defense attorney in private practice who has also worked civil, municipal finance and personal injury cases.

SunRail opens in Osceola

SunRail opened its Osceola County lines this summer, ushering a new era of transportation for locals.

The first phase, from DeBary to south Orange County, opened in 2014. The second phase through Osceola is a 17-mile stretch from the Sand Lake Road Station to the Poinciana Station.

The train runs throughout the day, from early morning to late evening, but only on weekdays.

Many use the train for work and recreating, favoring a SunRail fare over the cost of gas, tolls and wear on their cars. Some commuters also take the train to avoid the dreaded traffic on

Interstate 4.

More than 600 residents signed a petition this fall to get a fixed LYNX bus route to the last stop on the SunRail line in Poinciana.

NeoCity

Osceola County’s high-tech research park NeoCity has partnered with several technology companies this year including Face International Corp and Siemens.

BRIDG – short for Bridging the Innovation Development Gap –  is a publicly funded consortium focused on developing commercial uses for “smart” sensors, from phones to homes.

It provides collaborative space for academic and corporate researchers and provides access to sophisticated and expensive equipment, labs and software, like the massive “clean” room built for working with the semiconductor materials used in sensors.

Osceola County contributed $60 million to build BRIDG and the planned commercial development around the campus known as NeoCity. Anchored by the University of Central Florida and funded through other state agencies, a total of about $200 million has gone into the project on U.S. Highway 192.   

Puerto Rican storm evacuees

The Federal Emergency Management Agency officially ended the Temporary Shelter Assistance program for survivors of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

In Osceola County, where many fled from Puerto Rico after the September 2017 storm, many have re-established their lives here. Others continue struggling to get back on their feet.

FEMA this summer extended the Transportation Assistance program to help survivors get back to Puerto Rico

Meanwhile, advocates for Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm and still living in motels contend that extenuating circumstances necessitate government assistance. Thousands from the island came to the U.S. mainland after Hurricane Maria decimated the island last September.

Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, its residents are U.S. citizens and therefore eligible for help from FEMA. They also say FEMA is denying due process by cutting the temporary shelter funds.

Margaritaville Resort prepares to open

The $750 million resort was announced back in November 2015, and this year, the massive 300-acre development got even closer to its early 2019 grand opening.

Located near the intersection of U.S. Highway 192 and State Road 429 in west Osceola County, the resort will feature extensive retail space, 1,000 “Margaritaville-inspired” vacation homes and a 187-room hotel.

Margaritaville held a major job fair in November. In October, a construction worker was killed during a freak accident on resort property.

Frito-Lay announces new factory near Poinciana

In August, Frito-Lay announced plans to construct a $130 million, 286,000-square-foot service center on 75 acres across from the new Poinciana SunRail station. The high-tech facility is expected to begin construction next year and wrap up by 2021.

Frito-Lay said it will invest an estimated $40 million into the building and another $90 million into tools and equipment.

Details on the project – which is projected to employ 200 people – were unveiled by Frito-Lay executives during an Osceola County Commission meeting Aug. 17.

Students walk-out in solidarity after Parkland

On Feb. 14, a student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people.

In the weeks that followed, students from across the country – including those in Osceola County – walked out of class for 17 minutes in a gesture of solidarity with the students from Parkland. The walk-outs took place at numerous schools, including St. Cloud Elementary and Osceola High School. The demonstrations served as a form of protest against lax gun laws, and eventually led to a larger national movement known as “March for Our Lives.”

New SRO mandate unfolds in Florida

In response to the shooting in Parkland, Florida, Gov. Rick Scott passed a massive $400 million piece of legislation in March known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act.

It included a sweeping, partially funded state mandate requiring a school resource officer (SRO) at every public and charter school in Florida – and two at every high school.

Paying for the new officers wasn’t easy, and proved to be a major challenge for local government officials when it came time to prepare budgets in the fall. Osceola County schools were able to get all SROs in place by the August deadline, but not before extensive trimming from other areas of the Osceola County, Kissimmee and St. Cloud budgets.

“The cost for school safety has more than doubled due to the mandates set down from the state recommendations,” Sheriff Russ Gibson told county commissioners over the summer.

The cost of adding 42 sworn deputies and 25 patrol vehicles, along with other expenses, resulted in more than $4 million in unexpected costs for the Sheriff’s Office this fiscal year.

It is unclear how much funding the new mandate will receive when the State Legislature heads back to Tallahassee in March.

Woman wrongly killed in Kissimmee murder-for-hire plot

Kissimmee resident and mother Janice Zengotita-Torres, 42, was mistaken for a different woman and later killed by three individuals attempting to carry out a murder-for-hire plot that shook Central Florida.

According to the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, Ishnar Marie Lopez wanted to put a hit on the girlfriend of a man she loved. Lopez hired Alexis Ramos, 22, and his girlfriend, Glorianmarie Quinones Montes to do the job.

The group waited outside a Ross store in Kissimmee for the woman. But they kidnapped the wrong person, and later, confessed to killing Zengotita-Torres anyway.

“She was the target of a senseless act of violence in which she was robbed of her life,” said Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson during a January press conference.

St. Cloud adds 784 acres to city limits, sees huge population growth

In May, the St. Cloud City Council chose to annex, or add, about 1.19 square miles, or 784 acres, into city limits.

The move was made ahead of a massive upcoming development project called Tohoqua that’s set to span lands south of Neptune Road and north of the Twin Oaks Conservation Area.

The planned community is said to add 2,216 single-family homes, 1,004 apartment units, a high school, a K-12 charter school, a fire station and 296,000 square feet of commercial development space.

The annexation came after new U.S. Census numbers showed a 36 percent population increase in St. Cloud since 2010 – the largest growth of any city in the Central Florida tri-county region.

Three marijuana dispensaries approved for Kissimmee

A Gainsville-based grower got the green light from Osceola County commissioners in February to open three medical marijuana dispensaries just outside Kissimmee city limits. During that same meeting, the commission also indefinitely banned any other future dispensaries from opening in the county.

Progress on the pot shops stalled for months as the original company, San Felasco Nurseries, was acquired by a national industry-leader called Harvest Health & Recreation, Inc. for $65.9 million in late November.

Harvest Public Affairs Director Ben Kimbro told the News-Gazette in December that the three dispensaries should be ready to open in January or February.