Orlando City builds bridges with historic Parramore neighborhood

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Ralph Armstead has seen a thing or two in the Parramore district of Orlando. The venerable area lawyer grew up on South Parramore Street in the historically black neighborhood that’s undergone numerous changes since the 1960s.

Today, Armstead boasts a law office in the civil rights-themed Wells’ Built Museum on South Street, just four blocks from the new Orlando City Stadium. The MLS venue marks the latest attempt to revitalize Parramore and create an urban regeneration zone, and Armstead has proved a vital player in connecting the community with the club.

He served on the advisory board of local experts that helped steer the project, to ensure the Lions didn’t become “noisy neighbors” in such a sensitive area. And now, with City firmly entrenched as Parramore residents, Armstead is encouraged by what he’s seen and heard so far, as a new dynamic is created in downtown Orlando.

“They have been doing as much as they can to reduce the effect of being new neighbors,” he says. “The people know [Orlando City] wants to be good collaborators and, while there have been some frustrations, I am hopeful and optimistic that the organization is going to be a good partner for the area.”

That sentiment continues through other major points throughout the neighborhood. At local barbershop institution J Henry’s, the mood veers from jubilant to cautious. It’s been a tough couple of years for owner J. Henry, who saw his business hit hard while the huge construction project ripped up much of his Church Street frontage.

But with foot traffic flowing again, he is seeing more money pouring into the neighborhood, especially on game days. “I have been the owner here since 1994 and it has been a time of great uncertainty,” Henry said on recent afternoon. “The good part is that we are now getting exposure and support, and people who didn’t come to this neighborhood in the past are now visiting, and they bring a very diverse group with them, the people who support soccer. I never imagined this would happen.”

Lee Garner serves a client at J Henry's. Photo by Susan Veness

Lee Garner, one of Henry’s three barbers, was even more effusive. “Orlando City is my team,” he added. “I am a home-town guy. I was born here, raised here, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. We are going to be one of the biggest [sports] cities in the country, and I am very proud of it.”

Customer Chris Gordon-Somers echoed similar sentiments. “If you see what it looked like prior to the stadium, there were some old abandoned buildings and it was a real eyesore,” he said. “Now, as well as the stadium, they have rebuilt the fire station and made this a nice place to be.”

Both Henry and Garner have noticed the initial boost from a flourishing business in game-day parking, and a growing trade in street-food vendors. Chef Eddies soul food restaurant has become a go-to venue both before and after matches, while the fan-owned Broken Cauldron Taproom and Brewery, little more than two blocks from the stadium, has quickly become the home of the Ruckus supporter group.

But it’s possibly the initiatives that are not as obvious that offer the most promise of collaboration between club and community. Through the Orlando City Foundation, Kay Rawlins has masterminded an intensive effort to ally with Parramore, through projects from summer soccer camps and creative writing classes to Thanksgiving turkey giveaways and fresh produce schemes.

Orlando City's Kay Rawlins. Photo by Susan Veness

“We have been working here since before the stadium ground-breaking,” she says. “Things are going to change; we know that. My hope is that it will be for the better for the majority. We have come to love this area and there is so much we want to do.”

Rawlins and colleagues are already planning for a new, affordable farmers market on the stadium site. “We are also reaching out to all the other non-profit organizations in the area to try to coordinate things so all of us can have an even greater impact,” she says. “We may not be able to cure cancer, but we can certainly tackle things like homelessness and bringing good food to the area.”

Dr. Robert Spooney, pastor of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional Church, is another community leader who has helped on the stadium advisory board. He thinks the real impact of Orlando City’s arrival has yet to be seen, and will only be fully realized with other development.

“The stadium is a magnificent piece of architecture and certainly adds to our skyline, but no one really knows what the long-term impact will be,” he says. “It will benefit the aspirations of the city, since the stadium falls in line with the ‘sports entertainment corridor’ concept promoted by city leadership. 

“I believe most Parramore residents are hoping for the best as they embrace change. I also believe there will be an increase in businesses around the stadium, but sustainability of those businesses will be based on permanent residential development.”

Armstead, meanwhile, says he approves of what he’s seeing so far. “I am encouraged by the people involved,” he says, “especially when you have the sensitivity of someone like Kay Rawlins. As long as we have people of that caliber, we will be in good shape."