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Poinciana's Growth Changes Its Essence

By April Hunt

March 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

POINCIANA -- Chris DePrimo bought a house here because the prices were cheap, even for Florida. Arlene Rose wanted a quaint spot, away from the bustle and traffic. Fernando Rosario looked forward to more expatriate New Yorkers and Puerto Ricans discovering the small town on its way to becoming a city.

All three came to "experience the life" -- the motto of Poinciana, a community in southern Osceola County. The hamlet promises a country atmosphere with city amenities, a boast that lured 10,000 new residents in the last decade.

But record growth is taking the country out of Poinciana and replacing it with urban sprawl. It’s a story being told throughout the region and the state.

Poinciana’s spurt of new subdivisions and shopping centers has altered the very essence of what was supposed to be.

Poinciana Gallery • Poinciana Gallery • Poinciana Gallery

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(Ed Sackett/Orlando Sentinel)
Snapshot: Poinciana (Orlando Sentinel) Never moved back.
(Ed Sackett/Orlando Sentinel)
(Ed Sackett/Orlando Sentinel)
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Poinciana Gallery • Poinciana Gallery • Poinciana Gallery

The side streets are still leafy, the residents still friendly. But for each new family that comes in, there is a greater demand for services and a greater strain on what is here.

Residents talk of wanting more street lights to control traffic, a need for more entertainment options in a community with a single video store and no theaters and, in the universal language of sprawl, an end to the growth they themselves represent.

"Send ‘em all back," said Johnny Agosto, who moved to Poinciana with Rose in search of quiet just two months ago and hopes to move his father in from Apopka. "It’s quiet out here, and it needs to stay that way."

It won’t.

A decade ago, Poinciana had 3,618 people and very little else on 47,000 acres of pasture and field.

Census figures released Tuesday show the community has mushroomed to 13,647 people who have a new library, a second shopping plaza in the works and even a handful of eateries such as Burger King and Denny’s along the main drag, Cypress Parkway.

County officials have known for years that Poinciana is ground zero for Osceola’s growth, simply based on the hundreds of building permits issued there every year.

Indeed, Osceola is Central Florida’s fastest-growing county, according to the census, and the fourth fastest-growing county in Florida.

But when commissioners approved Poinciana, they didn’t expect a community 20 miles from Disney and 10 miles from Kissimmee to end up being the county’s fastest-growing area.

With those additions come changes.

Hispanics fuel growth

Neighborhoods in the South, and in Florida, have historically been either black or white. Now, a Poinciana resident is more likely to precisely pronounce Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro’s name -- and know what part of Puerto Rico he is from.

"We have a [real estate] broker in Puerto Rico and a broker in New York who bring people in," said James Corey, a construction worker who helps put up four houses a week in Poinciana for El Dorado homes. "They are all sold before we build them, and there is no end in sight."

The community’s main developer, Avatar Properties, has newly paved roads, waiting for more houses. And as soon as the buildings are up, U-Hauls and Bekins trucks park on the lawn or on the street, idling to turn houses into homes.

The license plates on the community’s cars illustrate the exodus from elsewhere: New York, Ohio, neighboring Orange County. A BMW with plates from Puerto Rico sits in a driveway -- clearly reflecting who is driving the growth.

There were only 796 Hispanics in Poinciana in 1990. Today, there are 5,393, 40 percent of Poinciana’s population. That is second only to Kissimmee, where the population is 42 percent Hispanic.

Rosario is among the newly arrived.

He retired from New York three years ago. He had read an ad in the Daily News, promising sunny days and cheap living in the countryside. Even for Central Florida, Poinciana is a bargain: a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house with a garage sells for about $90,000 or rents for $700 a month.

Now an assistant pastor at Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, Rosario has watched fellow New Yorkers and Puerto Ricans flock to Poinciana. Ten years ago, his church had only 12 members. Today, it has 230 -- and the small sanctuary holds only 250.

"Every Sunday comes, we have to put more chairs out," he says. "We will have to expand on both sides to fit."

Head pastor Manuel Santos said the church didn’t expect to grow so quickly. "We planned this church 10 years ago," he said. "We didn’t plan enough."

Town retains its trees

There is room to expand in Poinciana -- not just for Rosario’s church but for the entire community, meaning there will be a continued march of houses, shops and restaurants across what was once scrub pine and pasture.

Unlike many new developments -- where trees are leveled to make way for cul-de-sacs bearing their names -- developers so far have kept the greenery in Poinciana. Agosto and Rose live on a quiet side street where tidy ranch homes are towered over by 50-foot pines, their branches dripping Spanish moss.

Rose has a card table set up on her back porch, a screened observation deck where she has spotted foxes, owls, and once, a wild boar.

Her son and daughter-in-law, John and Bonnie, live just five blocks away. The grandkids -- 15-year-old Mindy, 10-year-old Justin and 8-year-old Caleb -- are able to go between the two homes on their own, as well as go to the nearby park where they are building a fort in the woods.

"You have open country out here, and you feel safe," said Rose, who works at Vacation Works, a timeshare business in Kissimmee. "In 10 minutes, I can be where the action is in Kissimmee, or I can go home and relax."

Sprawl sure to continue

The action is in "the city" -- Kissimmee -- because the homes went up before the businesses. But that will change in coming years as thousands more people demand Targets, Wal-Marts and restaurants.

There is a Winn-Dixie in Poinciana -- where the Muzak of choice is instrumental versions of Spanish ballads. A Publix is on the way. But many Poinciana residents drive to those same groceries in Kissimmee, drawn to lower prices that competition offers.

It is another four miles past the groceries to the closest movie theater, and about the same drive to a skating rink or other activity for youngsters.

DePrimo moved into a home on the Polk County side of Poinciana -- the community dips into Osceola’s southern neighbor -- and has an even longer drive to get to work in Orlando.

Distance is a concern

But his main concern is his 5-year-old daughter, Brianna. Starting next year, she will have a 45-minute ride to school. For that reason, his family is considering moving to the Osceola side of the community, or back to the Queens neighborhood where he grew up.

"I still think I’m going back to New York," he said of his unwillingness to lay claim to Poinciana.

"But if you have your choice of living anywhere in Central Florida, you’re better to be here and take 45 minutes to get to Orlando, even with traffic, than live in, say, Deltona and tear your hair out on I-4."

Commuting is why Wendy Clay moved out of Poinciana, even while she still works as the manager of the Denny’s that opened on Cypress Parkway two years ago and remains a hub of morning activity.

Her sons, David, 15, and Sam, 13, are in the most awkward of teen years -- those where kids have no desire to hang out with their parents but don’t have a license to drive.

"It’s not a community yet," Clay said. "It’s like a big subdivision."

April Hunt can be reached at or 407-931-5940.

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