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In Hendry County, U.S. Sugar's departure may make things worse

Lewell Hughes, 61, of Clewiston waves while campaigning for Hendry County property appraiser outside Harlem Civic Center. “This is my last shot at staying in my field,” says Hughes, who was laid off from U.S. Sugar Corp. in October.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Lewell Hughes, 61, of Clewiston waves while campaigning for Hendry County property appraiser outside Harlem Civic Center. “This is my last shot at staying in my field,” says Hughes, who was laid off from U.S. Sugar Corp. in October.

CLEWISTON

Lewell Hughes once ran U.S. Sugar Corp.'s real estate division and kept tabs on more than 150,000 acres of sugar cane fields and orange groves for Hendry County's largest employer.

These days, Hughes, recently downsized out of U.S. Sugar's executive suite, is running for county property appraiser, baying for votes in the shadow of the belching sugar mill that kept him employed for 40 years.

"This is my last shot at staying in my field," Hughes said, sweatily waving a campaign sign from the back of a pickup truck in Clewiston. "If not, I will look at a new career."

"America's Sweetest Town" — Clewiston's nickname — is the chief town in an Everglades county stuck with the highest unemployment in Florida. In July, Hendry's jobless numbered 13.6 percent. That's more than double the state average.

A one-company town on the sultry western rim of Lake Okeechobee, Clewiston is hemmed for miles around by broom brush tufts of sugar cane, the green stalks nearly lapping against a new Wal-Mart Super Center on the west side of town.

It's both a blessing and a curse. The 80-year-old sugar industry supplies more than 10 percent of the county's jobs. But those jobs aren't sticking around. U.S. Sugar has laid off about 130 in the past nine months. Neither the board room nor the boiler room has been immune.

Rural economics conspire against Hendry in other ways. A few years back Ocean Boy Farms set up south of town to grow organic shrimp in saltwater tanks for the Northern market. It recently shut down and is hawking idle equipment to potential buyers as far away as Australia.

A. Duda & Sons, a fruit-packing company in the county seat of La Belle, shut a plant in April, taking dozens of jobs with it. Waning home construction killed off a local sod business. The once-popular Clock Restaurant closed unexpectedly in May. Sonny's Barbecue burned to the ground not long after.

"Eliminating, eliminating, eliminating: That's the job situation here," said longtime Clewistonian Maria Hornsby, whose husband took early retirement from U.S. Sugar last year.

Clewiston in August slumbers in Southern sedation. Northern snowbirds and fishermen drawn to Lake Okeechobee won't arrive for months. Many Spanish-speaking people who make up about 45 percent of the county's population are picking fruit in the Carolinas. The orange and sugar harvests won't start until the fall.

At the Clewiston Inn, a historic landmark and the city's best-regarded restaurant, the menu urges patience if you order a burger. Though the dining room is almost empty, the cook will need 20 minutes to grill it.

"Y'all spoken here" reads a sign for a Ford dealer in La Belle, about 30 miles west in the direction of Fort Myers. Cattle laze under oak trees near iron-gated entrances to sprawling ranches.

On Clewiston's main drag, West Sugarland Highway, only a few locals pick around the 99-cent shirts and cast-off dishes in a Goodwill thrift store. Some people strolling through the doors are after more than bargains.

"Every day at least five people come in here looking for a job," says manager Maria Serrano, who adds that a bank and pharmacy are cutting hours.

Spirits rose when the state announced it would hire 65 locals to help with Tropical Storm Fay cleanup. The news rippled through Harlem, Clewiston's mostly black neighborhood that catches whiffs of burnt molasses from the sugar plant.

"It's sad a tropical storm had to come to bring work," resident Anthony Robinson said.

Hendry County's biggest blow won't land until around 2014, when the state plans to finalize a $1.7-billion deal to buy all of U.S. Sugar's holdings, mills and refineries included. If the cane fields revert to wetlands, it's supposed to help restore the Everglades.

The big question is what happens then to 1,700 people employed by U.S. Sugar and its subsidiaries. An offshoot called Southern Gardens, miles outside of town, squeezes not-from-concentrate orange juice.

Hoped-for development from the direction of Fort Myers petered out with the collapse of the home-building industry.

But townspeople are determined to make ends meet, from the family selling "hog dog pupies" for $100 to the fishermen casting lines from atop Okeechobee's Herbert Hoover Dike.

Anibal Castro, who spent a day last week electioneering in Clewiston, hopes that investors flock in from Miami and West Palm Beach after U.S. Sugar eases its grip on the town.

"It could become a ghost town," Castro said. "But who knows? It could even become a nicer place."

In Hendry County, U.S. Sugar's departure may make things worse 08/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 3, 2008 4:49pm]

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