Photographs L - R: FloridaWild Veterinary Hospital, Before/After; West Volusia Properties, Before/After now a part of the hospital; West Volusia Properties back building, Before/After.
The historic "Garden District," an ambitious downtown residential revitalization project initiated by retired special education teacher and West Volusia Properties Broker/Owner Maggi Hall, was an effort to eliminate blight and crime in a long forgotten neighborhood adjacent to downtown DeLand. Hall had been successful in restoring multiple historic properties in South Carolina and St. Augustine FL. She received an award from the SC Archives and History for restoring the longest operating public school in the state. Built in 1886, it had sat vacant and deteriorating for years. So to initiate this project was right up her alley.
It all began when Hall read in the News Journal that a bike path was planned from the north end of DeLand through Stetson University's Campus and south to Victoria Park. Hall drove the route and when she got to the stop sign at the corner of E Voorhis and S Alabama, half a block from the county library, she sat stunned, the car idling. Amazingly she was accosted by someone trying to sell her drugs; thus began her dream at the crossroads of what would one day become DeLand's Garden District.
It was inconceivable to Hall that the city had allowed such decay and crime to take hold but she vowed to do something about it. She'd been appointed to DeLand's Code Enforcement Board and while living in St. Augustine also had served that town in the same capacity. The real estate firm she was with at the time thought she was nuts so Hall established her own firm. It took Hall several months to interest the slum lords into listing their properties.
Once she had a dozen properties under contract she advertised on the national commercial real estate website, LoopNet. Hall was, in fact, the first Realtor in the area to use the site. Incredibly, a day later she received a response from a developer and dreamer in California, Michael Arth. He had no money but he had ideas; and those ideas matched what Hall wanted to do. Arth and wife Maya, were anxious to see the area. Hall warned them to drive to her house without going through the neighborhood. They flew in to Orlando, rented a car, and in their excitement ignored Hall's advice. When they arrived at Hall's house around midnight she answered the door to find Arth standing there, his face as white as his shirt. "Oh no," Hall exclaimed, "you drove through it - and your survived!"
With daybreak, food, and enthusiastic conversation, they toured the properties. To the great relief of all Arth and Hall wanted to move forward with the project. Hall found Arth investors who would loan him the needed funds with NO MONEY DOWN. Arth was coming at the project hat in hand. The interest rates were high but he was willing; and so was Hall. Arth purchased 17 structures (some which had multiple apartments) and Hall purchased five to be restored for her real estate office and her daughter's veterinary hospital FloridaWild.. Additional adventurers bought in to the project and thus began with the energetic and enthusiastic hardworking dreamers what became the Garden District. Hall would be the only Realtor to list and sell in the neighborhood; no one trusted the project and they were also fearful of the crime area. (Southern Living, 2004)
Excitement grew, money flowed out, little came in, homes were revitalized, beautified, and crime dropped 10% in the neighborhood. Arth called Hall to ask, "How can I get rid of the drug lord here? The cops won't do anything?" Hall replied, "Pay him off." Arth did and the drug king left the area. Arth named the area, "The Garden District" and asked Hall what she thought. "Well, it will never be the Garden District of New Orleans but it'll be ours!"
What became a flourishing dream as downtown DeLand's outdoor urban living space collapsed with the economic downturn in 2007. Arth lost the majority of his properties to bankruptcy as did several other homeowners. From then until the present (2017) the City of DeLand has allowed decay and crime to revisit the area. The city ignores structures in decay whose owners ignore codes while the city ignores violations. Crime has revisited the area with prominent families abandoning their homes; structures restored are again in decay though a half dozen remain in good condition as owner's maintain faith prosperity and safety again will revisit The Garden District.