As the DeLand SunRail extension creeps closer to reality, the city and Downtown DeLand’s movers and shakers are tasked with solving a key issue: How to get people from the far-flung DeLand Station on Old New York Avenue to the bustling Downtown?
One option the city is considering is like what the City of Sanford has in place — a trolley system to ferry SunRail riders to Sanford’s historic Downtown 2 miles from the station.
Although discussions are still in their infancy, MainStreet DeLand Association Executive Director Wayne Carter said talk has begun, and the several field trips he and others have taken to Sanford have played a role.
“We’re in a pretty similar situation to Sanford,” MainStreet DeLand Association Executive Director Wayne Carter told The Beacon. “And we’re at the end of the line, so we’re going to benefit either way.”
Sanford and DeLand have quite a bit in common, Sanford Economic Development Director Tom Tomerlin told The Beacon. Founders Henry DeLand and Henry Sanford shared a first name, sure, but in more modern times, both cities have Downtown corridors that draw people from nearby areas and both have — or will have — SunRail stations set apart from their main downtown hubs. DeLand has a bit more territory to cover; the SunRail station will be more than 3 miles from Downtown.
Phase 1 of SunRail got on track in 2014. The first phase allowed riders to ride from DeBary to Orlando with stops along the way, including in Sanford.
“The Community Redevelopment Agency here was very aware of the fact that we have a Downtown that was growing and getting renewed interest as an entertainment district — food and beverage is very big here in Sanford,” Tomerlin said. “They were very aware of that, and began to think ‘What do we do to get someone visiting Sanford that last mile?’ so to speak?”
The Sanford CRA came up with a solution — a trolley car to run from the SunRail station to the city’s Downtown Information Center. Riders can even track the schedule of the trolley — which begins running around noon and operates into the evening — on the city’s website.
Through a contract with the company Lake Mary Shuttle, the CRA foots a bill of about $185,000 annually to fund the shuttle service from the SunRail Station and the Amtrak Auto Train Station to the downtown hub and other stops — at no cost to riders.
Free to riders still means someone’s footing the bill, Tomerlin said, but the city sees it as a worthy investment.
“I’m not sure of any public transit system that pays for itself; there’s no such thing,” he said. “But this one is entirely funded by the CRA and the public objectives with it are very simple: We have a thriving Downtown and we want to make access to it as easy as possible.”
Right at the heart of that thriving Downtown is Christina Hollerbach, CEO of the award-winning German restaurant Hollerbach’s and president of Sanford’s Main Street Association.
“If it has to do with hospitality and tourism in Sanford, I probably have my hands in the pie,” Hollerbach said.
She sees the trolley as having a bit of an identity crisis. Is it meant to be used exclusively by tourists, or is it meant to also be utilized as public transportation for locals needing to hop on and hop off around town? Sanford is a little less spread out than DeLand, she said, and she thinks a trolley like Sanford’s may benefit DeLand.
That said, Sanford’s trolley is still a work in progress.
“It’s a good thing, but it needs work,” Hollerbach said. “I would love to see it like the trolley in St. Augustine. All these distilleries, wineries, the chocolate factories. They’re all basing their demographics on the trolley and when people get dropped off.”
Hollerbach said she hopes to see SunRail expand its operations to weekends. Added times will bring in added riders, including entire new demographics of people who typically can’t take a day trip on weekdays.
As of now, there are no concrete plans to add weekend times for the commuter rail system.
Trolley times may be a little off sometimes and it may face a bit of an identity crisis, but, Hollerbach said, the math is simple: More people walking around downtown, especially people from outside of Sanford, is good for business.
“It is exciting, because it’s bringing a certain group of people we weren’t getting before,” she said. “I think people are keen on having that experience and having a SunRail day.”
Wayne Carter said he and the other stakeholders in the City of DeLand recognize that, too, and are looking forward to further connectivity between DeLand and the rest of Central Florida.
While it may be a way off, Carter is confident that a trolley taking SunRail riders to DeLand’s Downtown was in the city’s future. With the DeLand SunRail extension still a few years off, Carter said, they’ve still got some time to make it work.
“We’ve got until 2024,” Carter said. “So I figure we have a year to figure it out and a year to make it happen.”