In a tough race, Commissioner Mark Maciel takes the high road
Monday, March 1, 2021
Winter Garden District 3 City Commissioner Mark Maciel: “I have a passion for this city. I’m not running for re-election for any other reason.”
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It’s 9 A.M. on a chilly overcast February morning, and I’m sitting with Mark Maciel, 55, at a picnic table outside of Plant Street Market. The Winter Garden city commissioner and married father of three is in a tough race to hold onto his District 3 seat against challenger Bobby “O” Olszewski, who once held the seat but vacated it before his term was over to run for Orange County Commission. (He lost.)
That’s how Maciel, who served on Winter Garden’s planning and zoning board for six years, became city commissioner. He was elected in a special election on Jan. 24, 2017 to fill out Olszewski’s term. The retired Air Force veteran then ran unopposed for a second term. Now Olszewski — who won a special election in Oct. 2017 to go to Tallahassee to fill out the last year of Rep. Eric Eisnaugle’s term, only to be defeated in the regular election by Geraldine Thompson — is back.
And things are getting dicey.
Olszewski has made a campaign issue of Maciel’s career as a real estate developer, suggesting Maciel and/or his real estate friends may benefit financially from his position on the commission. In its endorsement of Maciel, the Orlando Sentinel said it “found no evidence that's the case.”
“I have a passion for this city. I’m not running for re-election for any other reason,” says Maciel who moved to Winter Garden from Rhode Island with his family in 1997. “Winter Garden has come so far and we’re on such a neat path, being a city of this size and the awards we’ve gotten and the lifestyle we’ve created. I just want to make sure we maintain that. It’s not hard to lose our way.”
Then Maciel made a promise to voters: “I’m not looking for any other higher office. This is it for me. When I’m done here. I’ll feel like I’ve done my civic duty and that will be it.”
So Maciel, looking dapper in his commissioner’s button down and blue blazer, talked about what he still wanted to get done before exiting politics for good. Things like balancing development with growth, annexing subdivisions and pockets of still-unincorporated areas of East Winter Garden into the city, and everyone’s favorite bugbear, managing our traffic situation. But first …
Norine Dworkin: Your opponent says that because you’re a developer, you often have to recuse yourself from votes on projects that come before the commission and that you may benefit financially from your position on the commission. How do you respond?
Mark Maciel: Let me address the issue of having to recuse myself. I recused myself on one project that started before I got on the city commission, and that is it. I have no other business in the city of Winter Garden going before the commission. There was one project: it had been approved as a 130,000 sq.ft. commercial plaza on State Road 50 before I was even involved in it. Then it died after the recession. I’m a minor partner in the group that picked it up after the recession, and the project got reduced to 80,000 sq. ft., so I didn’t get any preferential treatment. In general, the city was harder on me than other developers because I was on the commission. As far as land, anything that I have done is me using my expertise is to find land that I think the city should buy because I think it’s good for the city and good for the residents, particularly of East Winter Garden.
My opponent also says that I’m in bed with a lot of my supporters. None of them have projects that I know of in the city of Winter Garden. I’ve never been asked to do any favors or anything like that by any of my supporters.
ND: It’s been suggested — and not just by Bobby Olszewski; Ron Mueller, running in District 2, has voiced a concern — that having developers on the city commission can make the commission ineffective if someone always has to recuse themselves from a vote. Can you comment on that?
MM: Knowing what I know about development, there are times when developers say, “We need this density to make the project financially viable,” and I know when they can give a little bit and when they can make the architecture look better or reduce the density. If you look at my voting record, I’ve voted for reduction in density in almost every case. We have to have development. The key is having a commission and a staff that knows development so we have development that the city likes, and I think my expertise really helps the city do that.”
ND: Why do you want to continue to serve on the city commission?
MM: I have unfinished business in District 3 and throughout the city. We’ve got some critical projects. We’re at the tipping point with the city right now. Do we grow much past where we are and how do we sustain what we already have?
Growth is inevitable. But are we going to have growth that’s going to support what we have and enhance what we have, this lifestyle, this charm we have downtown? We have to be careful about the kind of projects we approve at this point going forward.
We are on the cusp of doing some great things in East Winter Garden. Being in the real estate business, I know how to keep an eye on it to make sure we don’t head toward gentrification because I’m sure it’s right for the picking for developers. There are already people buying. One way we can curtail that developer surge there is by buying these properties. That’s what I do. I look at available property, and I will go to the city and say, “You gotta buy this.”
You may have heard of land trusts. Cities, if they’re big enough, will put together a land trust, which can aggregate land. Then it makes sure the land goes to friendly developers that do good projects that benefit the community. We’ve created our own land trust by purchasing these properties. Now, we go to a developer like Habitat for Humanity and put some specifications on the development, like that it has to be affordable, it has to look good, it has to have a sense of community. You can’t do that if you don’t control the property. These land purchases have become good investments for the city and all the residents of Winter Garden.
ND: Didn’t you remediate a piece of property at Center and Tenth Streets with a buried kerosene tank that was central to the city’s revitalization plan in East Winter Garden?
MM: It was where residents used to get kerosene for heating and cooking. The pump was gone, but the tank was still buried. I have experience in environmental remediation, so I said, “Let me get it cleaned up. I’ll get the clean bill of health from the Department of Health and then the city can buy it.” I got it all cleaned up and the city took it over, and we were able to acquire that key piece of property right in the middle of East Winter Garden.
ND: What are you most proud of accomplishing in your time on the commission?
MM: Opening up communication. I’m sure you’d still find people who’d say we don’t know what’s going on in the city. But I can say I’ve made a tremendous effort to try to make sure everybody knows what’s going on, whether it’s through my Stakeholders Email, providing periodic updates about what’s happening in East Winter Garden, or social media platforms like Facebook or Nextdoor to say, “This is what’s going on in our neighborhood.”
The city of Winter Garden makes sure that every project that has a higher impact than just building a house goes to a community meeting. Even when a project has zoning, we will ask a developer to have a community meeting to get input from the community. We tell people that the developer has development rights, but we also have input about what goes into our community.
ND: What kinds of projects have you done in District 3 outside of East Winter Garden?
MM: State Road 429 goes past many of the neighborhoods in District 3 and causes a lot of noise. I get it at my house. You sit on the back porch and all you hear are trucks and motorcycles. We have a huge groundswell of support to put up sound walls.
There was another project that was going to put a road through a wetland. They had approval from some environmentalists. I got together with the county commissioner and the city was against it 100 percent, the Cambridge Crossing community was against it. I said I understand people have property rights, but this was not a property rights issue, and this was not going to happen. They fought hard. They had lawyers and consultants lined up. But we met the residents’ expectations on that, and the road was not built.
ND: If you are re-elected, what do you want to get accomplished in your next term?
MM: I want to be sure we don’t overbuild, that we have some “smart growth” and we maintain what we have. We’re down to the point where, especially in the downtown area, we have “in-fill projects” (developing vacant areas within communities). We just want to make sure we vet those projects and keep the standards high.
Traffic is going to be an issue, so I really want to look at the effect these projects have on traffic. Dillard Street is going to be developed soon – we just got approval on that. We’ve got traffic circles that should alleviate a lot of the issues. I want to make sure that that comes to fruition the way it should because Dillard is going to be our gateway into downtown.
Then there are annexations of properties. If you go down State Road 429, where Winter Garden stops, the county begins. A lot of those neighborhoods would like to annex into Winter Garden. A lot of them capitalize on Winter Garden’s reputation because they do have a Winter Garden address although they’re technically in the county. I want to be sure that if we do annex, there’s a benefit to the city when it comes to taxes. Otherwise, I don’t want to annex these subdivisions that don’t bring something to Winter Garden. They can stay in the county.
ND: What should they bring? Cookies?
MM: Usually it’s a tax base. If it’s a good neighborhood, built to our standards with the type of open space that we’ve had, with the type of parks; with the type of family atmosphere that Winter Garden likes and needs, then it should be considered if there’s a benefit to the city.
ND: Sometimes annexations are necessary so that communities, like East Winter Garden, can get access to emergency services, correct?
MM: East Winter Garden annexations have to get done this next term. That got put on hold with Covid-19, and that’s even more important than the annexations down the State Road 429 because those are enclaves. Enclaves pose a particular problem because they are surrounded by the city, but they’re little pockets of “county” that don’t receive city services.
ND: When I was researching a feature story on East Winter Garden, I interviewed someone who told me that for areas in East Winter Garden that are in the county, when they call 911, it could take 20 minutes for a response.
MM: Absolutely. It’s crazy. [Winter Garden] will respond if we can because we have mutual aid agreements with the county. But it’s a huge county, and the sheriff only has so many people to patrol. And to be blunt about it, the bad guys know where to go.
ND: Covid-19 continues to be a public health threat. There’s an Orange County mask mandate, and I see signs around Winter Garden encouraging mask use, but I also see people refusing to wear masks. What can the commission do to keep Winter Garden residents safe?
MM: I don’t want to make this a political issue. I’d like to make it an issue based on common sense and science. I do think we all need to be careful, and we have to take this thing seriously. I don’t think wearing a mask is too much to ask. And if that’s what it takes to get businesses open and get people back to school and protecting our vulnerable, then that’s what we need to do.
I’m going to continue to support every city effort to keep people safe and that includes things that help businesses stay open. We blocked off some of the parking to have outdoor seating and it seems to be helping businesses stay open. We’ve become a benchmark for what to do during a pandemic to help businesses. We don’t want to do anything at the expense of lives, but we don’t want to shutter downtown either. It comes down to a balance.
ND: The most current U.S. Census data indicates that Winter Garden is 53 percent nonwhite. The city commission is all white and predominantly male. The committees and boards that support the city government are likewise mostly white and predominantly male. The city of Winter Garden recently re-wrote its Constitution without a single person of color on its charter review committee. If you get re-elected, what will you do to help bring more diversity to the commission’s committees and boards so that Winter Garden’s government is more reflective of the city it governs?
MM: I don’t know if we’re doing a great job of advertising, but it is hard to find people to sit on those boards. It’s a commitment. It takes time. We probably need to advertise it a little bit better. There’s no pay involved. There’s no real recognition. But just getting it out there. Even if it just appeals to someone who wants to do their civic duty. I believe that our government needs to represent the people and there needs to be diversity from all sides. But you’re right, we have not done a great job of that. There’s got to be some way we can do it even if we need to make special accommodations. You’re right about that.