Winter Garden to convert ranch into park, preserve piece of old Florida

Winter Garden, one of Central Florida’s most dynamic and fastest-growing communities, plans to use a $1.7 million grant to preserve a part of old Florida.

The city of 42,000, best known for its artsy downtown, brick streets and a cool new brewery, will use money from the West Orange Healthcare District to convert Tucker Ranch into a park and working farm.

“This is going to be one of the biggest and best projects we’ve ever done in Winter Garden,” City Manager Mike Bollhoefer said during a presentation filled with photos of oak canopies and other natural attractions at the 209-acre ranch. “It will be unique in Orange County.”

The new park, which could open as early as next year, is south of Florida’s Turnpike and abuts the western edge of Avalon Road — about 20 miles west of Orlando.

It’s a key part of a goal to make west Orange the healthiest community in the nation.

“Not everyone can afford to shop in high-end grocery stores for fresh, organic produce,” Bollhoefer said. “Our farm will help close that gap and make it easier for all our residents to live a healthier lifestyle.”

Fruits and veggies grown at the park’s 12-acre farm will be sold at the city’s Farmers Market, recognized as one of the nation’s best in a poll conducted by American Farmland Trust. The ranch will provide a new recreation spot close to two of west Orange’s busiest roadways, Avalon Road and State Road 50. It also will feature launches for kayaks and canoes, natural trails and a campground close to Johns Lake.

The idea sprouted from the city’s frustration with the lack of local offerings at its open-air farmers market, staged Saturdays near the splash pad in downtown Winter Garden.

“Unfortunately it’s not easy to find produce that is fresh and healthy and locally grown,” Bollhoefer said.

Mary Burroughs, who lived on Tucker Ranch from 1954 until 1979, said her late mother, Corinne “Sweet Pea” Tucker, would be pleased with the city’s plan for their former home.

“She wanted it to stay a park and mostly not to be developed,” Burroughs said. “There’s already development everywhere.”

Her mother died April 12 at 90.

Burroughs and her husband, Jim, recalled nurturing a sickly calf named Pooh at the farm and how the tube-fed bovine grew into a massive steer.

They also remembered the delicious green beans, squash, sweet potatoes and tomatoes Mary’s parents grew on the farm — and bald eagles that have nested in trees on the ranch since 1966.

The city’s partners on the ranch project include the health-care district and the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. The grant was funded with proceeds of the district’s $181 million sale of Health Central Hospital and other district facilities to Orlando Health Systems in 2012.

The health-care district, created by the Legislature in 1949 to help finance community hospitals when fledgling medical…

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