Poverty's Paradise

Staggering unemployment, city hall ablaze, ashes falling like snow -- it must be South Bay

But even Anthony's leadership couldn't conquer the endemic problems. The grocery store closed, along with several other white-owned businesses, says Walker, and many whites left town. By 1990 the U.S. Census described South Bay as about 62 percent black, 22 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic, and about 3 percent Native American and Asian respectively. Neither Walker nor Anthony thinks those figures have changed much.

Things got especially hairy in the mid-1990s. A prominent local produce company, South Bay Growers, shut its doors in 1994, killing 1000 jobs. U.S. Sugar followed suit a year later, replacing 500 positions harvesting cane with machines that could do the work less expensively. Unemployment, which nowadays hovers just below 20 percent, reached 45 percent in 1996. South Bay found itself not only on the edge of Lake Okeechobee but bordering on extinction.

If there's been a turnaround -- as the mayor, the police chief, and the town clerk believe -- the key is the prison, which opened in 1997. It provides almost 400 jobs. Built with state money and operated by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, the facility houses almost 1500 inmates who have been convicted of crimes ranging from murder and rape to petty theft.

Clarence Anthony's recipe for saving his hometown: pave the streets, add a library, toss in two parks, and welcome a prison
Maximilian Kaufman
Clarence Anthony's recipe for saving his hometown: pave the streets, add a library, toss in two parks, and welcome a prison

Crime has not increased, and residents' sense of comfort and stability has, Chief Jones says. He credits Anthony for the improvement. "He's an amazing person," Jones adds. "He's always positive, he just doesn't quit. We could have gone under; we needed those jobs, and he made noise about our situation."

The way Anthony tells it, "I was sitting home and [then-]Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay called and said, "I've heard about your [unemployment] situation.' He flew me up to Tallahassee, he sat me in his office, and he said, "I've got an idea.' Because of that relationship, we continue to get money."

The relationship brought more than the prison and jobs; it brought a yearly income. The state pays South Bay the equivalent of property tax on the prison grounds, about $250,000 per year. "Some people see it as housing prisoners, but we pursued this clearly from an economic perspective," Anthony says. "The stimulus is to watch our residents have jobs and careers and to stay here."

But things haven't been completely rosy. In October 1998 Dorothea Williams, a 22-year-old mother of three, burned down city hall. As part of a welfare-to-work plan, Williams took a job with the city in 1996. She wasn't prepared for the work, say those who know her. Williams fell behind on her bills and decided to steal money from a city hall safe. One night she slipped into the building and set a small fire, which she intended to serve as a diversion while she committed the crime. Days later she was hunted down by police and investigators.

Now serving a five-year term in a North Florida prison, Williams wrote a letter of apology to the town after her arrest and conviction. She begged townsfolk to forgive her.

The day after the fire, South Bay residents began working to preserve some of the lost records and equipment, Jones recalls. A new city hall was built with insurance money. It opened in June.

The mayor doesn't dwell on the event, arguably the biggest recent blow to South Bay's pride. And perhaps because of his forward-looking viewpoint, town residents consider him a star. A modest man, he seems embarrassed by their compliments. While speaking with a reporter, he does not mention that his eldest son, Reidel, is a wide receiver with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At the Crossroads Festival, he appears to have no critic.

And the mayor downplays the fact that last year he served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, hosting a busload of fellow politicians from much larger cities where, he insists, "the problems are the same as ours but on a bigger scale."

Indeed Anthony, who earns $4000 per year, describes his town like any other mayor of a poor, rural community would. "We have available land, tax incentives, and a manual skill­based labor force that, I can tell you, is ready to work," he announces. "We need manufacturing. We need to tell people that this truly is a place where you can feel good about raising your kids, leaving your front door open.

"This is paradise."

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