Bringing in the Business

After seven years of planning and mucho spending, the Belle Glade Business Park still has nary a tenant

Like Zanger, Patel cites the slow pace of dealing with the city's bureaucracy. Although he expects to decide any day now if he will put the park on his short list of site possibilities, bringing the promise of 60 to 80 jobs to Belle Glade, "they still haven't given me a written offer," he says.

While Sudeco's relocation in Belle Glade is questionable, Houston-based El Paso Merchant Energy Group seems likely to spend substantial cash in the area and occupy fully half the 100-acre site. Owners began speaking with city officials about construction of a power plant on the site several months ago. Part of the attraction is proximity to power lines and the Gulfstream pipeline, a planned 750-mile-long, $1.6 billion project that will deliver natural gas to South Florida from Alabama. "Of course we would have a team of engineers come out and do a study to make sure it's suitable," says company spokesman Aaron Woods.

After completion the plant would create as many as 25 new jobs -- for workers experienced in administration, accounting, operations, maintenance, or engineering. City officials believe the facility could entice a few college-educated former residents to return home. But it won't help the unskilled and unemployed.

"As far as I'm concerned, they're agreeing to come to us. It's not 100 percent yet, but I'm confident they will," Belle Glade City Manager Tony Smith says.

Despite all the talk of future jobs and possible business relocations, a retention pond is the only visible sign of construction. The muck, which is normally two to four feet deep, has been scraped into huge mounds and must be allowed to dry before any work can be done, a time-consuming process. Wood, the finance director, explains that's why roads, sewers, and other elements of the infrastructure won't be completed until December 31 of this year.

Of the $2.4 million allocated to the park, assistant finance director Jimmy Beno says the city has paid $100,000 to Edens Construction for the infrastructure and will soon shell out another $100,000. Belle Glade has also spent about $300,000 on contractors, lobbyists, and other costs, he adds.

Beno and Wood have been drafted to lure new business into Belle Glade because "we can't afford to hire specialists," Wood says. Wood and Beno are obviously not marketing strategists. Beno says the city has not actively recruited companies. Instead "businesses come to us" through referrals from the Palm Beach County Business Development Board, he says. The two men tout their town as being "centrally located to both coasts," though Rand McNally's map of Florida indicates Belle Glade is about 40 miles from West Palm Beach and about twice that distance from Fort Myers. "I guess I drive real fast," Beno grins when told of the difference.

Stopping on the shadow of a dirt road that winds around the property, Wood and Beno indicate the front of the business park. It's hard to envision what they seem to see so clearly. "Right here," Wood says, pointing to a pile of dried earth, "is where the fountains will be."

The seemingly haphazard process in which Belle Glade is developing and marketing the park is nothing new, says John Zdgnowicz, director of the Jerome Bain Real Estate Institute and a finance professor at Florida International University: "As soon as you get government involvement, in terms of subsidies and tax breaks and such, forget efficiency." He adds that governments care more about attracting well-paid residents than aiding the unemployed. "If they really wanted to help them," he claims, "they'd train them so they could leave town."

One of those who might benefit if the city ever attracts new businesses is Lakaisha Rhett, a 22-year-old mother of four who desperately needs work. A single parent, she has thought about looking for employment in West Palm Beach but has no car. "It's real hard to find a job down here," she says, "one that's willing to give you good hours when you have kids."

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