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Bringing in the Business

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.

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Eydie Cubarrubia

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