Bringing in the Business

Muckamuck: Belle Glade finance director David Wood has big plans despite the stubborn soil
Eydie Cubarrubia

Belle Glade is a city where the difference between the haves and the have-nots is more than the four-lane highway that separates affluent and poor neighborhoods.

In the less-fortunate section of this isolated chunk of western Palm Beach County, most buildings are either crumbled shells or liquor-related establishments. People live in migrant-worker barracks, barely standing houses, or apartment complexes where signs faded long ago. The nicest residences are studio apartments located over a recently opened police substation. Defeated-looking men of various ages sit and stare aimlessly, many clutching malt liquor bottles despite the morning hour; some are farm hands temporarily out of work, killing downtime after a recent sugar cane harvest. Drying laundry hangs outside many homes, looking like rags that people in other places might not bother washing.

East of State Road 80, upper-middle-class homes line well-manicured streets that could be located in any pleasant suburb. Exteriors are brand-new brick, pastel plaster, and rustic yet unblemished wood siding. Houses sport cheery flowers, not hanging laundry. These folks can afford clothes dryers.

It's hard to imagine that all these people work in the same industry: sugar. But the fact this crop thrives in the area's nutrient-rich, black loam is what put the city on the map. At the south entrance to the town, a charming wooden sign greets visitors: "Welcome to Belle Glade: Her soil is her fortune."

Head past Glades General Hospital, a strip mall, a row of fast-food restaurants, city hall, and the local public library, and the highway leads to the site of the future Belle Glade Business Park, where construction began in January. So far there are only tall piles of muck dotted with young, green, unplanned vegetation. Belle Glade finance director David Wood's brand-new SUV kicks up thick clouds of dust that are immediately sucked into the vehicle, coating the red-and-black-leather interior as well as the riders within.

There's plenty of soil, all right. But the perpetually damp earth could be the business park's loss of fortune. In part because of the difficulty of developing atop muck, not one tenant has committed to the park -- even after seven years of development and allocation of $2.4 million in government funds, hundreds of thousands of that already spent.

Moreover the city has no concrete marketing strategy to entice companies or even a 3-D model. A potential tenant pulled out even after the park had been redesigned to suit it. And the most likely resident, a new power plant, would offer only 25 permanent jobs, all requiring specialized skills.

Belle Glade clearly needs new business. Wood says unemployment is at 16.4 percent. In contrast recent figures from Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation put Palm Beach County's overall jobless rate at 3.9 percent. In Broward County it's 3.7 percent; the statewide rate is only 3.6 percent.

The idea for the business park was hatched back in 1994, when South Bay Growers closed its vegetable-growing operation, eliminating some 2000 jobs in the process. City commissioners at the time worried Belle Glade's reliance on agriculture could be disastrous if another bigtime grower went down, so they decided to diversify the economy by building a 100-acre business park. They hoped many and varied companies would come bearing jobs.

City Commissioner Steve Weeks says that around that time the state designated parts of Belle Glade, including the business park, an enterprise zone. That means companies that relocate there can garner tax breaks, grants for training programs, and other perks.

Palm Beach County's Business Development Board approved the project in 1995. A master plan was developed a year later, and the city selected a site next to Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative at that company's request. In 1997 Belle Glade bought the land from the state for $188,000.

The following year the project received a $1.2 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration. (The balance of funding finally came together this year, Wood said, with the county's business development board kicking in $500,000, the state $250,000, and the city $450,000.)

Royal Concept 2000 Inc., which builds modular and portable buildings, was the first potential tenant. President and co-owner Wally Zanger began negotiating with Belle Glade officials three years ago. "I was going to get very good rent in exchange for creating jobs," he says. "It would have been interesting to go out there because they have a large labor market."

One difficulty Zanger encountered in Belle Glade was the muck, which can make construction a long and costly process. "They told me it would be $75,000 per acre to de-muck," he says. "I could buy good land for that."

Another even more serious problem arose last year, after Royal Concept won a contract to build portables for Palm Beach County schools. Zanger needed to build his facility fast, but city officials didn't know when they would complete water, sewer, roads, and other infrastructure. So Zanger was forced to build in West Palm Beach. Thus Belle Glade lost 50 jobs for skilled workers such as concrete finishers, plumbers, and electricians, as well as laborers.  

Sudhir Patel, owner of Sudeco, a sugar mill parts manufacturer, began negotiating with Belle Glade officials last March. Patel says the city's enterprise zone status, as well as its proximity to five sugar cane farms, might suit his company. But so would a location in Louisiana near 19 farms, and one in the Caribbean, convenient to more than 30 farms. Patel, too, is turned off at the cost of building atop muck. "That's in addition to the $450 to $600 per acre to lease the land," Patel says. "When you consider the cost of dealing with muck, it's a comparable price to what you can get on the eastern coast."

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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