Serious community concerns have been raised about Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s multi-million dollar Westmoreland Drive “path” intended for use by Parramore and Callahan children going to the new Pre-K through 8 school being built in Creative Village, which is called Orange County Public Schools Academic Center for Excellence. The growing concerns are also exposing Dyer’s administration, along with Orange County Public Schools, for not being transparent and not involving the community fully in the process. In one of the most dangerous and neglected areas of Orlando, young children and students are expected to walk to school, many without their parents.
The new path is already being dubbed Buddy Dyer’s “Sex Offender Sidewalk.”
It shocked many local parents to learn there are more than 250 registered sex offenders and sexual predators living within walking distance of the new sidewalk, in addition to prostitutes and drug dealers according the local state representative. Even some City Commissioners appeared surprised at last month’s City Council meeting when this fact was raised during public comments – apparently, they were not even aware of the reality of the area. But community members and parents have been discussing the matter for weeks now.
The sidewalk is intended to provide “safe passage” as local elementary children walk to school, something Parramore children have not done since 1972. “The goal of this project is to create a safe walking and biking route for students in the area to travel to and from school,” the City of Orlando posted in a June release.
“Downtown Orlando is not a safe place for children right now,” said longtime resident and Parramore business owner Lawanna Gelzer. Gelzer’s family operates a child care center in the Parramore neighborhood and she says more and more parents do not want to send their kids to this school by walking on the “sex offender sidewalk.” Betty Gelzer, Lawanna’s mother and co-owner of the Peabo Child Care Center, is currently running for District 5 City Commissioner.
Community members have raised these concerns at City Council meeting as well as at the Westmoreland Path Community Outreach Meeting hosted by incumbent District 5 City Commissioner Regina Hill on July 11th. The Gelzers hosted a Parramore Town Hall meeting on August 1st where the sex offender and sexual predator concerns were further addressed. State Representative Bruce Antone responded to community members directly at the Parramore town hall. He admitted the City of Orlando, Orange County, and OCPS only started coordinating for children’s safety in this area at the end of July for the first time.
“Is somebody going to ensure that the kids are safe?” State Rep. Antone asked. “In this community, we have folks selling drugs, prostitutes, homeless folks. There’s 266 registered sexual predators and sexual offenders within a 2 mile radius of the Orlando recreation center.” He also described the high number of transient members of the direct area who stay temporarily at the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, Christian Service Center and Coalition for Homeless.
According to FDLE and Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings’ statistics, there are nearly 100 registered sexual offenders living within 1 mile of the new Parramore school and Dyer’s new Westmoreland Drive path.
“You got a lot of kids – 900 or 1,000 kids – going to be walking to and from school, grades K through 8,” Rep. Antone continued. “These kids have never walked to school before. I just want to make sure that nobody is harassing the kids, robbing the kids, grabbing these kids, or whatever.” See State Rep. Antone’s full comments from the community here, courtesy of David Porter Blogs and 32805 News.
Last month, Commissioner Hill admitted the city still needed “volunteers” to help keep children safe while they walk through the neglected westside of Orlando. She even asked Gelzer to volunteer, but Hill has yet to follow up and put the Gelzers on the task force aiming to get this situation right and formulate an actual plan. Typical City of Orlando behavior.
“As someone who has taken care of the children for years, it worries me the City had no plan and no real engagement with parents,” candidate Betty Gelzer said. “We need to do better. We can’t send our kids into these situations like this, we need better planning, better community involvement and better leadership.”
Had Buddy Dyer and the City of Orlando not closed Parramore Avenue to allow the MLS soccer stadium to be built on top of the previous community thoroughfare and a large retention pond, children would have had a more direct route than Westmoreland Drive in another interesting connection to the reason so much money was spent on the Westmoreland path. State Rep. Antone does not think most children will go over to Westmoreland anyway, saying they will likely go in all directions. Once again, Dyer’s lack of planning ahead and his abrupt changes to the soccer stadium plans led to a more complicated community situation. The school board’s decision to locate the school here is another big problem, especially without a transportation plan or a safety plan for students.
The City of Orlando is currently trying to think about potential ideas to keep kids safe, including a “walking school bus” which still needs parents and volunteers to monitor children, a “bike train” which would need 1 parent for every 2-3 students and an “adopt a crosswalk” program which needs stakeholders to participate. Again, the City, County and school board only began directly coordinating on keeping these kids safe a week and a half ago.
Doesn’t it seem like children’s safety on the westside is a top priority for Mayor Buddy Dyer, Commissioner Regina Hill and the City of Orlando?