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Soaring in America's Seaplane City

Tavares opened an $8.4-million seaplane base and marina in April.

Seaplanes are everywhere in Tavares. They're painted on the sides of buildings, shaped into mailboxes, even embedded in the city's logo. Most important, they're taking off and landing at the city's $8.4-million seaplane base and marina that opened in April.

Two years ago, Tavares declared itself "America's Seaplane City," a title it trademarked as part of an aggressive economic development effort. Since then, the Lake County city of 13,000 has been attracting attention from seaplane enthusiasts all over the world.

The marketing effort was a big gamble. Local leaders were looking for a way to revitalize the waterfront city's downtown. By the time they honed their vision, the nation was in a deep recession. The city decided to forge ahead with its plans for an 88-slip marina along Lake Dora with harbormaster offices and a retail store, as well as a seaplane-themed children's splash park and a pavilion to host community events that have grown from four a year to 16.

John Drury
"The result has been incredible from a business perspective."
— John Drury, Tavares city administrator
The plan worked. Tavares' economy is soaring. The new marina has recorded 340 seaplane landings between April 10 and June 30. "Most people thought we'd be lucky if we got 10 a month," says the city's economic development director, Bill Neron. The splash park counted nearly 18,000 patrons in its first four months. In June, the city landed its first seaplane manufacturing facility, Progressive Aerodyne, which moved its operations from Orlando. Other seaplane-related companies are showing interest.

At least 22 new businesses, including restaurants, have opened downtown in the past three years — thanks, in part, to the city's decision to waive impact fees for the first year. Commercial permits are now outpacing residential — an important factor in a city where the largest employer is the tax-exempt county government, with 800 workers.

"We've been a little bit of an anomaly here," city administrator John Drury says. "During the best economic times, we were not doing well. During the toughest times, we're growing by leaps and bounds."