Wildwood sets pace for Florida growth

Jennifer Turnbull walks her 13-year-old shih tzu, Rylee, through her neighborhood at the new Beaumont community in Wildwood.

Mayor Ed Wolf envisions a day when Wildwood ranks among the largest cities in Central Florida.  The city is well on its way. Wildwood is growing faster than any other city in the state with a population of at least 5,000, with an increase of about 57% during a 24-month period studied by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. The agency estimates Wildwood’s population at 24,681 as of April 1, 2022, an increase of nearly 9,000 since the U.S. Census in April 2020. “Little old Wildwood is in a whole different bracket now,” Wolf said. “We have so many people wanting to move to Florida from up North and Wildwood has benefited from that tremendously.”

Only Westlake, a small city founded in 2016 in Palm Beach County, saw a greater percentage increase, growing about 229% from 906 to 2,981 residents between April 2020 and April 2022.

While The Villages’ expansion in Wildwood south of State Road 44 is driving the majority of the population growth, every other region of the city is seeing new development, City Manager Jason McHugh said. 

“It’s pretty remarkable,” he said. “We’re seeing the positive aspects of the growth throughout the entire city.”

The city’s population has more than tripled since 2010, when it had 6,709 residents, according to UF. 

New residents have added to the city’s tax base that for fiscal year 2022-23 is estimated at $4.4 billion, an increase of about 46% from the previous year, McHugh said.

Longtime residents can’t believe the changes in the city in recent years, Commissioner Pamala Harrison-Bivins said. 

“Having lived in Wildwood most of my life, it is a big change,” she said. “Personally, I love it. And I think most other residents who have grown up here and lived their whole lives here see it as a great thing. They enjoy the extra amenities and new businesses that have come with the growth.” 

Workforce housing

Wildwood continues to lead the way in the county’s push to meet demands for more workforce housing. 

A 2018 Sumter County housing study determined the fastest-growing county in the country needed at least 3,256 housing units with the suggestion that nearly half that number (1,500 units) be covered by multi-family options such as apartments and townhomes. 

Since October 2020, the Wildwood City Commission has given the green light for developers to proceed with nearly 1,700 single-family homes and about 3,700 multi-family apartments or townhomes throughout the city. 

In July, commissioners approved the largest single development outside of The Villages. Twisted Oaks Pointe will add about 1,260 homes in addition to 162,000 square feet of commercial and industrial opportunities. The 387-acre development from The Kolter Group will be west of U.S. Highway 301, south of County Road 462 and east of CR 209. 

Kolter is nearing buildout of the Beaumont community, which will have 271 single-family homes, 124 townhomes and 336 apartment units. Commercial properties at Beaumont include 7-Eleven, Culver’s, Action Gator Tire and Sweetwater Car Wash. A Home 2 Suites extended stay hotel is expected to open soon. Huey Magoo’s, Burger-Fi and Ashley Furniture have announced plans to open new stores at the community. 

Kolter is also approved for another 374 single-family homes and 240 apartments adjacent to Twisted Oaks and 407 homes at One Hundred Oaks on the west of U.S. 301 south of Florida’s Turnpike. 

“Kolter, like a lot of developers, has taken a real interest in Wildwood and Sumter County,” Wolf said. 

Several projects approved by the commission in 2021 are nearing completion, including 244 units at West Village Apartments, 294 apartments at The Mark at Wildwood, and 71 single-family homes at Wildwood Landing.

In the second quarter of 2022, the city’s development services department processed 1,335 projects, which represents a record for the city, McHugh said. Of those, 1,012 were permits for new single-family homes. 

Downtown revitalization

Wildwood is embarking on an ambitious revitalization of its downtown to attract even more amenities and business. 

Commissioners in October approved the first project associated with the Downtown Master Plan adopted in 2021. 

G3 Development, a family-owned real estate developer based in Mount Dora, is partnering with the city to develop an 8,000-square-foot, mixed-use commercial space along Main Street across from City Hall dubbed “The Railyard,” in a nod to the town’s railroad history. A proposed 126-space, four-story parking garage would be developed simultaneously a couple blocks to the north. 

“This project is huge,” Wolf said. “This will set the stage for the future of the city of Wildwood.” 

The proposed cost of the project is about $7.9 million. Funds have been earmarked in the Community Redevelopment Agency budget, McHugh said. 

“Hopefully this will spark additional investment and other things will happen here,” he said. “That will bring more tax revenue to the city which, ultimately, should fund future projects.” 

McHugh said ideally work can begin in the first quarter of 2023. 

The city approved its ambitious 30-year downtown master plan in November 2021 that calls for: 

• Re-routing U.S. Highway 301 away from the downtown core. 

• Acquiring and developing land owned by CSX Transportation. 

  Improving access via increased parking and additional bicycle and pedestrian trails. 

• Redevelopment of several existing buildings and shopping centers and promoting development of vacant spaces. 

• Creating more public park space to use for programming to attract visitors. 

• Developing a variety of housing options to allow people to live and work in the downtown area.

“This downtown revitalization could be one of the best things to ever happen to this city,” Wolf said.

Healthy living

Harrison-Bivins also points to increased offerings and programming from the Wildwood Parks and Recreation Department as a major benefit afforded by the growth. She is especially excited about the splash pad being installed at the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park. 

“I call that project my baby,” she said. “I just hope and pray people will enjoy it as much as I have envisioned. And I’m elated that we’ve been able to offer so much more to our residents. Whether it’s adult kickball leagues or Movies Under the Stars, our Parks and Recreation Department has done a phenomenal job of planning activities that get people out in the community.” 

Also in the works is a major Millennium Park expansion project. Plans call for eventually adding an aquatic center, amphitheater, dog park, event garden, wedding lawn and sports courts for basketball, racquetball, pickleball and tennis. 

The city also is expanding health care offerings. 

HCA Florida Healthcare, part of HCA Healthcare, has announced plans to build a 60-bed, three-story hospital along County Road 466A at Trailwinds Village. 

In 2020 the city welcomed the Center for Advanced Healthcare at Brownwood, a 240,000-square-foot outpatient facility featuring an array of providers offering imaging, oncology, ophthalmology, rehabilitation and pharmacy, among other services. 

Wildwood also is home to not one but two 24/7 emergency rooms, with UF Health The Villages Hospital Freestanding ER across from Brownwood and Ocala Health Trailwinds Village ER on CR 466A. 

“I can’t think of a better area to advance health care,” Wolf said.

City officials know the growth isn’t going to slow down. 

“We have stuff happening all over the place,” McHugh said. “People want to move to Florida and that’s not going to end any time soon.” 

The pace of population growth should continue for years, Wolf said. 

“This is really just the beginning for us,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we added another 4,000 to 5,000 people a year for the next several years. People are coming to Florida in record numbers and I can’t think of a better place in Florida than Wildwood.” 

Specialty Editor Keith Pearlman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5347, or keith.pearlman@thevillagesmedia.com.