Sunday, December 17, 2017
News Roundup

In proud Hendry, Florida's hardest-hit county searches for economic boost


Beyond the relentless fields of sugar cane stalks, past the sign heralding Clewiston as "America's Sweetest City," just south of a cluster of aged mobile homes and modest ranch-style houses sits the weather-worn Lighthouse Apostolic Church.

Above a church notice offering Escuela Domingo (Sunday school) is another placard urging passers-by to "FROG — Fully Rely on God."

In his office down the road, Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner is preaching a more active course. Hendry, he says, is struggling from a dependency problem akin to an alcoholic. For far too long, it has relied on farming — and dominant employer U.S. Sugar Corp. in particular — to prop up its economy. A 2005 study tied 74 cents of every dollar in Hendry's economy to agriculture.

"We can't bite the hand that feeds us, so to speak, because ag has sustained us for years." said Turner. "But until we educate ourselves and recognize there is a 100 percent correlation between your educational prowess, or lack thereof, and your economic potential, or lack thereof, we're not going to get past the status quo."

Here's the sobering status quo: Five years after the official end of the recession, Hendry remains the only one of Florida's 67 counties still mired in double-digit unemployment. Its July jobless rate of 12.5 percent, reported by the state Friday, is not only more than 3 percentage points higher than any other county, it's more than double Florida's rate of 6.2 percent.

Efforts are under way across the county to resuscitate Hendry's lagging economy, but change agents are wary of doing anything too radical that would mar a proud agriculture heritage dating back nearly a century.

It would be tempting to simply label this 1,100-square-mile Central Florida territory on the southern banks of Lake Okeechobee as the county that Florida's economic recovery left behind.

But Hendry's problems go beyond the Great Recession.

For decades, its jobless rate repeatedly spikes during summer months into the teens and higher — topping 25 percent at one point in the 1990s. Seasonal swings are the nature of an agriculture-based economy where migrant workers come and go. And there has been some improvement, with Hendry briefly falling below 10 percent unemployment earlier this year.

What troubles some of Hendry's civic and political leaders is that other indicators of economic angst have worsened.

Standardized test scores have fallen and reliance on government aid has risen throughout the "recovery." More than 80 percent of Hendry students in K-12 public schools were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in the 2012-2013 academic year, up from 70 percent four years earlier. Nearly a third of residents are below poverty level.

With no new homes being built, economic development leaders are frustrated they can't convince people to move here even if they win any business relocations.

Hendry's population shrunk by more than 4 percent from 2010 to 2013 while Florida's overall population was growing by 4 percent. A consultant's report hinted at a big reason: 60 percent of residents who secure bachelor's degrees or higher do not return after graduation.

"It used to be when people would leave they'd come back," said Billy McDonald, 62, who recently retired after 39 years as a lineman for the city of Clewiston's electric department. "You don't see that any more. Once they're gone, they're gone."

Runway dreams

Hendry could have been in far worse shape.

In 2008, Florida announced the largest land sale in the state's history — a $1.75 billion plan to buy nearly 300 square miles of Everglades land owned by U.S. Sugar. Reclaiming the famed wetlands for restoration was trumpeted at the time as similar to the establishment of the first national park, Yellowstone. It would effectively have put U.S. Sugar out of business, albeit in a comfortable financial position.

The deal never went through. A worsening economy and political opposition prompted state officials to settle for a much smaller parcel.

The whole episode, say several of Hendry's leaders, served as a much-needed wakeup call.

Along with a new county administrator, Hendry brought in a new school superintendent not afraid to shake things up and has begun to improve both the county's economic mix and educational institutions. "There's a mindset in leadership that we can't go with the status quo," said Charles Chapman, who moved from Tallahassee to become Hendry's county administrator 18 months ago.

The dilemma is how much, and how fast, the county can evolve when many residents appear resistant to change and negative talk about agriculture is a conversational third rail.

Gregg Gillman, president of the Hendry County Economic Development Council, prefaces every discussion about the need to diversify with a nod to agriculture's importance. "We celebrate the heck out of agriculture here," he says. "That's who we are and that's what got us where we are. But we need to do better."

Hendry is on the right path, Gillman insists, even if it doesn't show up yet statistically. Over the past year, the county has announced four projects that will eventually add another 250 permanent jobs, including turning an abandoned state prison into a military training site and building a biomass gasification plant.

Pockets of tourism have been reinvigorated, including the ever-expanding Roland & Mary Ann Martins Marina & Resort, which has earned a global reputation and attracts thousands of anglers eager to fish for oversized bass in Lake Okeechobee.

The biggest economic hope on the horizon is AirGlades Airport, the former Riddle Field in central Hendry, which was recently certified by the FAA as the only privately owned international airport in the United States. The goal is to refashion AirGlades into a major hub for cargo, siphoning off some shipments now sent to Miami and then using U.S. Sugar's rail line to move the freight by land. Someday, Hendry hopes it can become a major destination point for South American flowers.

Never in his 73 years here has Clewiston Mayor Phillip Roland been more excited about the economic future: "If the airport happens, it fixes this area for the next century. It will be for us what Disney World was to Orlando."

If it happens, that dream could be 10 to 20 years away.

For now, Hendry is seizing on smaller victories with outsized enthusiasm. When BioNitrogen Holdings Corp. revealed plans in May to build a $300 million plant outside of Clewiston — creating 250 short-term construction jobs and about 55 long-term jobs — Gillman proclaimed the news a "mega, mega-economic development announcement for the county."

Higher-paying jobs like those promised by BioNitrogen appear to be the exception.

Asked about recent business additions in town, Clewiston Chamber of Commerce executive director Electa Waddell cited a few restaurants, a paint store and a new bail bondsman.

"There seems to be a lot of low-paying jobs here, unless you work at the sugar mill," said Paula Stangret, who moved from northern Wisconsin to Clewiston five years ago.

That small-town feel

Most of Hendry's 40,000 residents live in unincorporated rural patches of the county, growing sweet corn, green beans, broccoli, cabbage, squash — along with sugar and citrus. On the county's southern edge is the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation.

The only two towns — Clewiston (pop. 7,000) and LaBelle (pop. 4,500) — sit on opposite corners, tethered by a 30-mile stretch of State Road 80.

In LaBelle, most shops and restaurants have been around for years, said Charlie Harris, 28, who owns the Bridge Street Coffee & Tea shop, better-known to locals as Charlie's Place.

In a town where everyone knows everyone, "it makes it difficult for a newbie to take hold," said Harris, whose family has lived in the area for "three or four generations, depending on which side of the family."

LaBelle and Clewiston have distinct identities, but they share similar values, similar roots.

"Life around here revolves around family and faith and work and football," said Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar senior director of corporate communications and proud mom of a high school football player who went on to play at Stanford University and sign with the Oakland Raiders.

No one wants to lose that small-town feel. No one wants to lose the agricultural identity of a place that boasts "arguably the most fertile farming land in the world," as stated on a plaque at the Clewiston Museum.

No one wants to minimize the role sugar plays, from the springtime Clewiston Sugar Festival to the Sugarland Highway winding through the city's downtown by Sugar Realty and Clewiston Middle School's Cane Field.

"We know who we are. We're not trying to be Silicon Valley. … We're not trying to be Naples," said Chapman, the county administrator. "We don't want to lose our rural senses; we don't want to lose Mayberry. We want to take our blue-collar roots and take it to the next level."

Yet being dominated by a single industry has clearly taken a toll.

There are more orange groves in Hendry than any other Florida county, and citrus has been devastated by greening, a pest-driven disease that has infected at least 70 percent of Florida's citrus trees. The other dominant crop, sugar, is battling severely depressed prices that the industry blames on Mexico dumping cheap sugar into the country.

U.S. Sugar promises to keep its headquarters in Clewiston, a pledge backed up by investing more than half a billion dollars when it combined two milling operations into a larger, modernized complex that opened in late 2007. "We now have the world's largest fully integrated sugar cane processing, milling and refining facility," said Sanchez.

The company's modernization has been a mixed blessing. Being more efficient and paring back production means fewer jobs. In 1999, U.S. Sugar employed more than 3,000; now 1,700 work there.

In the 1990s, there were four people in Sanchez's public affairs department, offering public tours and educational outreach. Now she shares an assistant.

As a private company, U.S. Sugar doesn't disclose financial details. But Sanchez acknowledges "there have been years in the past decade when we have not made money and we have not paid dividends to shareholders. It happened in the recent past."

U.S. Sugar is proud of Clewiston's moniker as a "company town," recognizing its civic obligations by taking a prominent role in everything from funding a new downtown playground to promoting the AirGlades transformation. But Sanchez balks at the notion that Big Sugar is able to handle all the requests for help that flow its way.

Fighting denial

Karson Turner's family business, Quality Electric, has done electrical work on bridges from Jacksonville to Boca Raton. Less than 1 percent of its business is in Hendry in most years, and persuading new hires to move here is "a hard sell," he concedes.

Yet, the county commissioner would never entertain leaving. "We love saying we have roots at home," he said.

Others made similar commitments. Like local pharmacist Haitham Kaki, who runs K&M Drugs. And Clewiston city manager Al Perry. Mainstays like First Bank and the Langford family, which runs a local Ford dealership, are ingrained in the community.

But that's not enough to turn things around.

There needs to be a countywide buy-in to diversify the economy, an overhaul that could take a generation, Turner said. That's not happening yet, not based on conversations he's had with other residents that go something like this:

"I say, 'I'm going to roll my sleeves up and we're going to try to fix this thing.'

'Fix this? You mean there's a problem?'

'Darn right there's a problem.' "

Turner said he fears his community is "100 percent in denial.'"

Chapman points to another obstacle. Many don't want to make dramatic changes if it means friends or acquaintances could lose their positions.

As a relative newcomer, Chapman says he has discovered Hendry is full of "wonderfully nice" people. "There is a downside," he adds. "You can be too nice."

Contact Jeff Harrington at [email protected] or (813) 226-3434. Follow @JeffMHarrington.

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