Recommended For YouPowered by SailThru

Definitely in My Back Yard

Willie Thomas' morning starts at 8:30 a.m. with a jolt so powerful it shakes the foundation of his house. Sometimes it seems like it happens even earlier. But like an alarm clock, every working day, the bang awakens Thomas and his wife, Betty, with a start.

With that, the couple gets out of bed, and Betty gets ready for her job as a caretaker in the town of Palm Beach while Willie, a retired welder on disability with two bum knees, helps the four grandchildren who live with them get ready for summer camp. Amid the din and rush of morning activity, the noises followed by the sudden tremor seem to subside.

But after his family has left, Thomas, age 58, remains behind. He spends most of the day in his one-story house, and, as he eats his breakfast in the morning, he again begins to feel the house vibrate beneath him. Competing with the noise coming from the TV are the sounds of work trucks idling by the factories outside, blowing thick puffs of exhaust from their tailpipes. Sometimes, when visitors are around, Thomas stews about what his hometown, Mangonia Park, used to be like.

Thomas lives on one end of Elmwood Street, which is lined by three dozen homes. His one-story house resembles the others in size and shape, but a white facade with pink trim gives it the appearance of an oversize gingerbread house. Inside, pictures of his seven children and their children adorn the walls, and at certain times of day the lingering smell of a home-cooked meal fills the air. When he first moved into Mangonia Park 25 years ago, he looked out his kitchen window and saw palm trees and wide bands of grassy scrub.

"They had some goats over there," he said one afternoon, "and I think some cows."

But today Thomas looks out the window and sees a windowless building that looks like a giant brick. It's the home of Signing America Corporation, which uses heavy machinery to cut and inscribe metal signs like those seen on the interstate pointing out an exit.

Every so often Thomas walks over to Signing America to complain about the noise and tremors caused by the machines, but mostly he just makes do with the inconvenience.

"Every time I go back there," he grumbles, "I just get pissed off."
Thomas has a lot to be angry about. Just 200 yards beyond the sign factory, where goats once grazed, stands a three-legged, 550-foot-tall communications tower that slightly resembles the Eiffel Tower. Not far from the tower, to the north, is a cement plant, which pumps out about 1600 cinder blocks a day.

And just a hundred feet from Thomas' driveway is C-MAC, a company that manufactures computer chips. Atop the manufacturer's three-story building are two giant exhaust fans. During the winter, when it's cool enough to sleep with the windows open, the fans sometimes kick into gear and wake Thomas up in the middle of the night.

These nuisances are part of a 40-year-old trend in Mangonia Park: Sustain the town financially by bringing in factories, warehouses, industries, and commercial businesses. Of course economic development is part of any city's plans for the future. But what separates Mangonia Park from other towns and cities is a sense of proportion. Mangonia Park, population 1400, takes up only one square mile, about three-quarters of which is already populated by industrial and commercial properties, according to Darla Levy, the town administrator. The town is bisected by two major thoroughfares lined with supermarkets, gas stations, drug stores, fast-food restaurants, and other staples of urban life. Once a sleepy enclave tucked between West Palm Beach and Riviera Beach, Mangonia Park now looks like a huge industrial park with a few houses scattered throughout.

And the trend continues. Mangonia Park residents recently supported the town council's decision to allow a 31,000-square-foot detention center for girls to be built in the southeast corner of town. "Detention center," of course, is just a fancy name for jail, and jails are about as popular among homeowners as Superfund sites and strip clubs. But Mangonia Park's mostly working-class residents feel strongly that the detention center will provide them with much-needed jobs and help lessen the property tax burden.

Mangonia Park is not in dire financial straits, but the town has a history of cutting corners to sustain its existence. Should the town show any weakness, some residents claim, West Palm Beach, a city 54 times the size of Mangonia Park, is ready to scoop it up and steal the tax base. That would destroy Mangonia Park, the "small-town" feel of which is still a source of pride to its residents, many of whom have lived here for decades. Despite the busy factories, the rattling houses, and the heavy-duty industry surrounding the town's four neighborhoods, long-time residents still describe Mangonia Park as "isolated," "quiet," and "secure," which makes it a town worth hanging on to.

"Mangonia Park is a small town," says Thomas, a tall man with a torso that resembles a D battery. "And everybody here is like a family, and we have no problems getting along. And I would just not want West Palm Beach taking over Mangonia Park. I'd want no part of that."

But just across 45th Street, the road that divides the two neighboring municipalities, West Palm Beach city officials and a few of that city's neighborhood associations have a different take on the issue. The detention center, they say, is one more example of industrial overload, which will adversely affect not only Mangonia Park but West Palm Beach as well. During public hearings last year, dozens of West Palm Beach residents showed up to protest the detention center, and the neighborhood associations pressured the city to file a lawsuit. But both efforts failed; plans to build the the center are under way.

Ron Dixon, a West Palm Beach resident, says: "I tried to explain to them, 'It may benefit you in the short run, but the quality of what's going to be on 45th Street is going to hurt you.'"

The 31,000-square-foot detention center will be built on a three-acre plot on the outskirts of Mangonia Park, along train tracks that separate the town from its neighbor. The building, along with outdoor basketball and volleyball courts, will be surrounded by a 14-foot-high fence and kept secure with an electronically operated double gate. The jail's immediate neighbors include a handful of homes in Mangonia Park and, in West Palm Beach, a mental hospital, a children's hospital, and two smaller detention centers -- one for juveniles, the other for adults.

The other two jails are run by the state, but the Mangonia Park facility will be operated by the same company that plans to build it, the Sarasota-based Correctional Services Corporation (CSC), which owns 33 other jails nationwide. The new jail will house up to 126 girls age 13 through 17 who have been convicted of felonies, such as theft and drug dealing. But CSC doesn't just incarcerate. Its programs focus on education and building self-esteem, according to Jim Irving, CSC's vice president of the juvenile division.

Final building plans for the detention center will be presented to Mangonia Park's town council in late August, and construction is scheduled to begin by the end of the year.

But one fairly significant issue -- one that has West Palm Beach residents worried -- has yet to be resolved. It is not yet definite that the new jail will house juveniles. Typically, when the state determines a need exists for a juvenile jail, the legislature appropriates money for it, and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) reviews proposals made by private companies. After the proposals have arrived, DJJ signs a long-term contract with the most qualified candidate. The terms are simple: The state sends convicted criminals to the jail and pays the jail's operators to handle the rest. The state, however, regulates and oversees all jail programs.

CSC is about ready to build the Mangonia Park facility, but the company doesn't have a contract with the state. In fact, the state didn't even solicit proposals in this case. The state acknowledges, however, that there is a need for juvenile detention centers, according to John Joyce, a spokesman for the DJJ. In fact, there's a particular need for facilities for girls.

Jim Slattery, CSC's president and chief executive officer, is banking the whole project on this fact. He's so sure the demand for a girls' jail exists that he's moving forward with construction plans even without a state contract. He notes, however, that the company won't go too far without evidence from the state that it's willing to negotiate a contract.

Plans for the jail first began in early 1996, when a local developer, Rick Kolb, began scouting land for CSC. With help from Mangonia Park's town administrator, Darla Levy, Kolb located the three-acre plot, which is now just a grassy field surrounded by trees. Levy says that the property's former owner, Dr. Ronald Curtis, had purchased the land seven years earlier with the intent of building a medical complex. But Curtis never got the money together and had been looking to sell the property ever since.

It wasn't easy. The property was close to the railroad tracks and was not equipped with a sewer line or a water line, which would be an added expense for the buyer. But CSC agreed to pay for the installment of both if the town allowed the company to purchase the land and build the jail.

This didn't seem like a bad idea. The jail wouldn't be too close to most of the town's homes, and CSC claimed it would provide qualified Mangonia Park residents with 100 jobs -- guards, maintenance workers, secretaries, and administrators -- at a payroll of $2.5 million.

Mangonia Park needs the jobs. The 1990 U.S. Census figures show that the town's unemployment rate was then 11.7 percent, one of the highest in Palm Beach County and more than twice the country's overall unemployment rate at the time. The county rate has increased slightly since then, so it's likely Mangonia Park's rate has followed suit, according to Sue Patterson, an economic analyst with the Florida Department of Labor. Based on state statistics, she estimates that about 73 people in Mangonia Park are actively seeking work.

Once an all-white town, Mangonia Park is now 60 percent minority, with a median income of $22,000. For the most part, according to the census, Mangonia Park residents have only a high-school education, and the vast majority of working residents are employed in service, clerical, and vocational jobs. Even with just a high-school education, many unemployed residents could qualify for jobs with CSC.

"I feel if they have the opportunity to work, then some of them would," suggests Thomas.

Despite the job opportunities, not everyone in town is in favor of the proposed jail. Jean Rowland, a single, 71-year-old woman, moved to Mangonia Park in 1974 from a town in upstate New York not too far, she says, from Attica, home of the state penitentiary notorious for a riot that took place there in 1971.

"I didn't like the idea of when people drive into Mangonia Park from West Palm Beach, the first thing they see is a prison," says Rowland, who was a councilwoman when Kolb first approached the council with the jail proposal in February 1997.

At that time the town's zoning regulations didn't even take a jail into consideration. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the town council agreed it should draft a carefully worded ordinance to allow for such a facility. The ordinance states that, with special permission from the council, a company may build a juvenile jail, offer a work-release program, or put together a "secured and/or unsecured recovery or treatment facility."

Rowland didn't want a girls' jail in town, but she had even more problems with the other options. For her, "work release" meant criminals would get to leave the center during the day. "Secured and/or unsecured" could mean anything. And, as Rowland points out, CSC has yet to sign a contract with the state. If a contract isn't signed and the jail is built, the town could be left with an empty building. Either that, or CSC may want to protect its investment by returning to the council and requesting permission to use the jail for another purpose -- perhaps a men's penitentiary for hard-core felons. With this in mind, in February 1997 Rowland cast the single dissenting vote against the new ordinance.

Residents were incensed. The jail would be a source of employment and tax revenue, both of which are needed in Mangonia Park. CSC claimed the jail would, over time, have a $10 million economic impact on the town and the surrounding cities, based on projections from the Florida Department of Corrections. CSC would contract out for food and laundry services; visitors would eat lunch or get gas in Mangonia Park. More to the point, CSC would pay the town $40,000 a year in property taxes, plus thousands more in fees each year. It wasn't much in the grand scheme of the town's $2 million budget, but it was something. And ever since Palm Beach Jai Alai closed its doors in 996, the city of Mangonia Park has been looking for something that would help it get along. Rowland disagreed, and voters showed their disapproval during the city election in March.

"We voted for something we believed in, and basically the people did too, because they voted Jean Rowland out of office," says Mayor Alan Palmer.

But like Rowland, West Palm Beach residents worried about the uncertain future of the proposed jail. Some also expressed concern about reports they'd read about problems with CSC. In 1995, for instance, CSC lost a contract in New Jersey for allegedly abusing inmates at a privately run Immigration and Naturalization Services jail. And in 1997, a Miami judge pulled eight boys out of a juvenile center in Pahokee, in western Palm Beach County, because the judge thought the young men were being treated too roughly. CSC officials deny the allegations, and the DJJ refers to CSC as "a capable provider." Still, some West Palm Beach residents are wary not only of CSC but of their neighbor's willingness to look the other way.

Mangonia Park "is going to be like a company town," argues Jacqueline Smith, president of the Westfield Neighborhood Association in West Palm Beach. "This is going to be the biggest facility there now that jai alai is closed down, and I can see them having a great deal of influence there by the nature of the size and amount of the investment."

In mid-1997, Smith's association joined forces with two other West Palm Beach neighborhood associations to mount a full-scale lobbying campaign. The three groups represent 600 single-family homes, all located within a mile of the proposed detention center. They were supported by Palm Beach County Commissioner Maude Ford Lee and three of the five West Palm Beach City Commissioners. But after two public hearings in Mangonia Park, dozens of protest letters sent to state legislators, and even a lawsuit filed by the city of West Palm Beach (which the city lost), the associations were unable to persuade their neighbor to scrap plans for the jail.

To Mangonia Park residents, the victory proved a point: Mangonia Park not only wants the jail, the town needs it, and no one from West Palm Beach is going to tell them what they can or can't put in their own back yard.

Mayor Palmer, a full-time electrician, grew up in Mangonia Park and recalls that, when he was a little boy, his parents vigorously fought against West Palm Beach's decision to place a mental hospital along the border of Mangonia Park. The hospital went up anyway. "When all these other facilities went up," he scoffs, "we complained and no one listened to us."

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.

"I have never known the African-Americans in Mangonia Park to become involved in what impacted their life," says Addie Greene, a Democratic state representative and Mangonia Park resident who is black. "When they put heavy industry over there in the Hill section, no one was speaking up for the African-Americans, and that's what happened."

"We had already got here and settled in," contends Ernestine Rouland, a 53-year-old resident who grew up in Mangonia Park and has stayed to take care of her aging mother. "And we didn't know a lot of industry was going to come in, and we couldn't afford to sell out right away, so we just stayed and hoped it would stop. But it increased."

By 1989, with 1400 residents, 290 businesses, factories, and warehouses, and a handful of churches, the town was bursting at the seams. Many of the homes were also more than 20 years old and beginning to show signs of age. As a result property values decreased, and the town was forced nearly to double the tax rate.

It didn't help the town much that most residents of Tiffany Lakes, the town's largest development, didn't -- and still don't -- pay property taxes. Most of the 240 condominium units in the neighborhood were appraised at about $25,000. Florida's Homestead Exemption Act allows homeowners to deduct the first $25,000 of the home's assessed value before paying taxes.

To make matters works, a nationwide jai alai players' strike that began in 1988 continued for three years, forcing jai alai venues to use poorly skilled, nonunion athletes. Spectators grew bored with the sport, found other gambling alternatives, and stopped flocking to the Mangonia Park arena. Between 1987 and 1994, attendance dropped from 2000 people per game to 665, and the number of games went from 300 to 175 a year.

At its peak in the mid-'80s, the jai alai arena employed more than 300 people from Mangonia Park and surrounding cities. In 1993 the Rooney family, owners of several racetracks and the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, bought the business for $7.8 million -- about $4 million less than its assessed value. The family tried to revive the sport, but interest had waned so much that, by the end of 1996, Palm Beach Jai Alai had to close its doors for good, putting 300 people out of work. The Rooneys still own the property and are trying to sell. In the meantime they continue to pay $35,000 in property taxes every year.

Because of the lost revenue from jai alai and diminished property values, the town council has quadrupled the property tax rate since 1989. That means a resident with a $70,000 home now pays $560, rather than the previous $140, per year in taxes. It's also an indication of why Mangonia Park has been so willing to let just about any business get a foot in the town's door. Case in point: Multidyne, a company that built a medical-waste treatment plant in the northeast section of town in 1990. The plan was to truck in medical waste from South Florida hospitals, chemically treat it, and send it off for disposal elsewhere. Both Fort Lauderdale and all of Martin County rejected Multidyne's proposal. Then Multidyne promised Mangonia Park that it would pay a fee for each barrel of sanitized waste. Combined with property taxes, the company was supposed to provide the town with at least $490,000 in revenue each year. The council voted three to two to allow it, and a year later the company went belly-up, providing Mangonia Park with only a few thousand dollars and an empty warehouse.

Town Administrator Darla Levy says it sounded like a good idea at the time. "They came in, and they were going to make the town very, very rich," she explains. "It was something no one else wanted in their community and no one [lived nearby] so...."

So, move on to the next proposal. In 1994 Tower Works sought to install a 550-foot telecommunications tower for cellular phones and AM radio in the vicinity of West Palm Beach. Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach officials wanted no part of a tower that tall, but Mangonia Park accepted the proposal, and it was soon constructed in Mangonia Hills, less than 200 yards from Willie Thomas' home. Tower Works pays $14,000 in property taxes every year, according to Levy.

"That's the way we survive," Levy explains. "If we only had residents, I don't think we'd be able to survive."

For a moment there in 1997, Mangonia Park residents thought survival looked bleak anyway. In October the town decided to buy fire protection from the City of West Palm Beach for $263,000 a year. In past years the town had shelled out $300,000 for a fire department consisting of one full-time fireman, a couple of trucks, and a slew of part-time volunteers. After the fire services deal was struck, politicians from Mangonia Park and West Palm Beach began discussing a similar arrangement for police services. But the discussion ended when town residents protested, claiming that West Palm Beach was just looking for ways to annex its neighbor to increase its own tax base.

"The residents think that because West Palm Beach is doing our fire services and they did give us an offer to take over our police department, the town thinks West Palm Beach wants to take us over," Levy says.

But even she thinks that's unlikely. The two municipalities have never discussed the idea, and the City of West Palm Beach has never had any official discussion of annexing the small town. "It's purely speculation and rumor," says West Palm Beach City Commissioner Howard Warshauer.

Since Mangonia Park was founded, residents have always kept their distance from West Palm Beach. Theirs is the kind of "quiet" town, not city, where police officers know the residents so well that, when someone does something wrong, an officer sits down with the culprit rather than "go whopping on their head," as Thomas puts it. The residents all know each other; they tend to get along and reminisce about Christmases in the old firehouse and town picnics, Thomas claims. He, like others, does recognize, however, that they've paid a price by letting so many businesses move into town.

Betty Thomas says, "We like it because it's quiet here. Except when it's noisy."

As a result nobody's terribly concerned about a jail moving into town. Most won't even see it from where they live, and they honestly believe the detention center will provide some residents with jobs and the town as a whole with much-needed revenue. That's the important thing.

It's late afternoon on a weekday, and, as residents begin to return home from work, it does actually get quiet in the Thomas' Mangonia Hills neighborhood. Seven of Thomas' 14 grandchildren, some visiting for the afternoon, play in the living room, where their own parents grew up, and watch videos on TV before dinner.

"I think we have a nice little town here, and I would like to keep it like that," Thomas says. "I could go out right now and leave my door open for three hours and nothing would happen. I could leave my lawn mower out in the lawn, and nothing would happen. You can't say that about everywhere. You can't say that about West Palm Beach.

Popular Stories


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >