Definitely in My Back Yard

When the residents of Mangonia Park heard that a girls' detention center might be built in their town, they put out the welcome mat

Palmer lives on the west side of town, in a section called Bryn Mawr. It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in town and the least affected by industry. It's also about as far from the jail site as any resident can live. But even the Mangonia Park homeowners living closest to the proposed jail are excited about its construction. Some, however, have their own interests in mind.

Gene and Tiffany Keever live on a poorly paved road in a quaint two-story home with a screened-in front porch and a big yard. One day very soon they expect to look out their living room window and see the foundation for the jail less than 1000 feet away. And they couldn't be happier.

"I'm thrilled," Gene Keever said one Saturday afternoon as he tinkered with his fishing boat, hitched to a Dodge four-by-four in his driveway. "Why shouldn't I be?"

When the detention center is built, the Keevers hope to rent their home to jail employees and move into a new house they are building in Jupiter. The Keevers are also already fantasizing about the jail's expansion. Tiffany, a real estate agent in North Palm Beach, claims her home is worth $80,000, and if CSC expands onto her land, she is convinced she can get a third more than that from the company.

"This is all zoned semicommercial," she said, excitement in her voice. "So it would be our greatest hope that the facility would grow and take this whole bunch of property."

Big business means big money, and Mangonia Park has been selling out since it was founded in 1947. According to legend the city was founded by a handful of middle-class whites who didn't want to share neighborhoods with the blacks then moving into West Palm Beach. Mangonia Park has neither a historian nor a historical society that can verify that claim, but many of the city's residents say they've heard the same story.

That includes Palmer, whose grandfather was one of Mangonia Park's founders. He says, however, that he doesn't believe it. The city, he says, was founded by a group of West Palm Beach residents "who just wanted to start their own town." And that's the extent of the mayor's historical knowledge. The town's founders, he says, have all died or moved away without a trace.

In 1954 Mangonia Park's two main streets, now cluttered with fast-food joints and supermarkets, were dusty two-lane roads that led to dead ends. But Palm Beach Jai Alai moved into town that year, and everything changed.

The game of jai alai originated in the Basque section of Spain, where spectators gambled on the two participants who played the handball-like sport. When jai alai was brought to the United States in the early '50s with mostly Spanish players, it immediately joined up with horse- and dog-racing as one of the pari-mutuels, state-regulated sports that allow for legalized gambling. In 1954 a group of investors from Miami brought the sport to Mangonia Park, which was near the high-growth section of northern Palm Beach County but on the western border of any urban development.

Mangonia Park residents initially opposed the $1 million center, but the sentiment changed almost immediately when the developer promised to donate a new fire engine and give residents first dibs on more than 100 jobs the new arena would offer. The developer also paid the town for the cost of one extra police officer and a police car, making the transaction one that would set the tone for the next 45 years: Money and promises can quickly overcome the small voice of opposition.

For more than a decade, jai alai was the only major business in Mangonia Park. Interstate 95 had yet to be built in that part of South Florida, and by 1969 the town had merely 700 residents and a budget of $35,000.

Between 1970 and 1980, however, the town's population doubled as families were lured by inexpensive property and low tax-rates. Jai alai gambling reached the height of its popularity in the '80s, and Palm Beach Jai Alai was contributing to the town a cut of each customer's admission fee. That cut, along with property taxes for a site valued at $16 million, earned Mangonia Park roughly $150,000 a year, which accounted for 20 percent of the town's total revenue during that decade. The rest came from property taxes on homes and other businesses, which were beginning to thrive in Mangonia Park.

In 1982 the county widened 45th Street, opening Mangonia Park up to even more business opportunities. Five years later the town council rezoned the Mangonia Hills section of town, switching it from residential to residential/light industrial and commercial. As more businesses moved in, the mostly black residents of Mangonia Hills complained that the rezoning was carried on by a white council living in the the predominately white Bryn Mawr section of town. They never expected that the quiet, inexpensive neighborhood into which they'd moved would soon be overshadowed by a communications tower and the constant buzz of heavy machinery at industrial sites just around the corner. But that's exactly what's happened in the past ten years, and, as far as Hills residents like Thomas are concerned, there's not much they can do about it.

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