Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Connect with Downtown

In the midst of the present economy one may wonder how the downtown areas in small towns like ours are coping. I believe that many people judge the vitality of a town by the condition of the downtown – so the downtown area takes on additional weight as it represents the entire area.
The Big Picture
The goods and services available in many downtowns across the country have changed over the years. In the 1950’s and 60’s new highways were built, and new “shopping centers” appeared. The historic downtown areas often evolved over the years into a mix of specialty retail shops, professional offices, and restaurants.

I have a personal connection to the downtown area of a small town, and over the years I have witnessed these changes. As a boy I would frequently go with my mom or grandfather to the downtown where I grew up in Cheviot, Ohio. At one of the two drugs stores there was a counter with a soda fountain. As often as possible I would indulge in a chocolate soda with hand-dipped vanilla ice cream, a concoction that I believed was brought down from heaven by angels. I could have eaten my weight in chocolate sodas if my mom would have let me!

A few years later that drug store closed and was replaced with a furniture store. As the years went by several historic buildings were demolished and replaced by national chain fast food restaurants. Their familiar architecture that we typically see along major highways looks out of place in a downtown. Cheviot has changed and survived, but I can’t say that what is there now was well planned.
Lake Wales’ Success
By contrast, there have been several plans prepared for downtown Lake Wales, and the process of successful planning involves placing building blocks upon a solid foundation. We have had both “foundation shoring” activities, as well as some celebrated success with new building blocks. Some of the foundation shoring accomplished in the past few years are as follows:
  • The City Commission’s approval of the historic district, companion boards, and regulations downtown. This ordinance will go a long way towards preserving the charm of downtown.

  • The CRA’s approval of the capital improvement’s bond, which paid for the resurfacing of the streets downtown and elsewhere in the district.

  • The City Commission’s approval of the water main improvement projects downtown, which enabled the build out of the Bank of America building.

Following these foundation-shoring moves, some important building blocks have been laid:
  • The opening of the JD Alexander Center, the newest Polk Community College branch campus, made possible by Senator Alexander, our legislative delegation, the City Commission’s donation of the property and willingness to assign and construct parking, and the foresight of Robin Gibson in suggesting this use for the building.

  • The renovation of a number of buildings are now underway, including The Bullard Building, One Scenic Place, and the Gifford property at 251 Park. The north Arcade building has been restored, and negotiations are in process for the renovation of the Grand Hotel.

  • The Murals and Enhancements Group, led by Cliff Tonjes, has added energy and interest in downtown.

  • The opening of a number of retail stores in recent years, including the Else Group, the Polka Dot shop, Brenda’s Gifts, and the just opened Village Kitchen shop that moved from the mall, are all signs of good progress. These are important retail businesses that have become part of the core of retail stores that include True Value Hardware, Mayer Jewelers, and art stores such as BSD Galleries, Bellissimo, the Gallery and Frame Shop, and the Artists’ Guild.

  • At lunchtime there are now a variety of fine restaurants to choose from downtown, and a number of them are staying open for dinner. A new Puerto Rican restaurant has now opened in the arcade.

  • Ed Pilkington has remodeled a storefront to a professional office.

If you grew up with a connection to a downtown area as I have, you can renew your connection now! Become a part of this process by patronizing downtown stores, or by helping Lake Wales Main Street. This wonderful organization markets our downtown, puts on events such as the recent World Dance Bazaar, and coordinates planning efforts. Call them at 676-2028 or visit their website at www.lakewalesmainstreet.com.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Facilitating a Fact-Based Discussion

At election time every year there are healthy discussions on what the City has done or should be doing. Some of the topics currently being considered are the City’s tax rate, the level of debt, and spending on two capital projects: the Rails to Trails, and the 1919 building. Let’s explore these topics to facilitate a fact-based discussion.

Tax Rate
The City’s tax rate for the current fiscal year is 7.3277 mills. An examination of City budget history reveals that the tax rate approved by the City Commission for the current fiscal year is the lowest tax rate in 17 years! The tax rate for FY ’91-92 is the next lowest. As noted in a previous column in this space, in the last four years the City Commission has reduced the City’s property tax rate 22%.

City Debt
There has been much discussion on the level of City debt, but I have yet to hear anyone mention how our City’s principal debt amount (i.e., the amount owed on the original borrowed amount, without adding in interest payments) compares to that of other similar cities. The cities of Auburndale and Haines City are often used for purposes of comparison. For the 2007-2008 Fiscal Year, these three cities ended the fiscal year with these respective amounts of principal debt:

  • Auburndale - $54,143,338

  • Haines City - $45,360,648

  • Lake Wales - $32,725,486

Lake Wales has the lowest principal debt amount of the three cities.

In this space I have noted before that debt is a necessary method of providing funding for large capital projects.
Rails to Trails
The first phase of this project was a Florida Department of Transportation project, and no city funds were involved. That section of trail begins at Fourth Street and ends at Kiwanis Park.

The extension of the Trail to Buck Moore Road was a City project, paid for with grant funds that required a match of $133,000. The matching amount came from City Recreation Impact Fees, which can only be used to expand or provide new recreation facilities.

1919 Building (Hardman Hall)
The 1919 building project started with high hopes after the property was acquired from the county school board in 1995. An article in this newspaper on June 8, 1995 stated that the buildings would be renovated with funding “…from a variety of sources in the form of grants.” It was also noted that “… the entire project cannot be completed at one time but can be done in phases.”

To date, three of the buildings have been restored, with grant funding for one of the buildings, the former elementary school being leased to the Boys and Girls’ Club. The Club paid the matching funds required for that restoration grant. The other two restored buildings, the Kirkland gym and the Little Theatre, were restored with City bond proceeds and (non-city) funds raised by the Little Theatre, respectively.

The 1919 building has to date utilized $1,869,711 in grant funds and $300,000 in Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds towards rehabilitation. There have also been $154,285 in private donations and $17,124 in other city funds used for the project. The next phase of restoration is currently being planned, and it will use $350,000 in grant funds and $300,000 in CRA funds. Beyond the next phase, it is estimated that it will take $1,011,087 to open the building for use and another $712,787 to completely finish the building, grounds, and parking. The spreadsheet detailing all of these figures (as well as the City budget and millage history noted above) is now available on the City’s website at http://www.cityoflakewales.com/.

The City Commission has established an advisory committee to work on the fund-raising needed to complete this building. Applications for membership are available at the City Clerk’s office.

It is anticipated that when this magnificent structure is completed its focus will be on musical education and performance. Lake Wales has a long tradition of musical excellence at our High School. The recent establishment of McLaughlin Middle School as a “School of the Arts”, and the strong music program being built at Bok Academy will greatly enhance this tradition. We look forward with the vision of the new advisory committee raising the remaining dollars necessary for our children to learn and perform at this wonderful new facility, which will richly add to the definition of our community as a place for both the arts and education.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Lake Wales "Sense of Community"

The Lake Wales Unity in Community group has volunteered to be involved in the effort to build a community swimming pool. This is one more example of the amazing “sense of community” that is present in Lake Wales.
Lake Wales Unity in Community
The Lake Wales Unity in Community (UIC) group was formed some years ago at the suggestion of Pastor JJ Pierce of the First Institutional Baptist Missionary Church. It was a project that was initially carried out by a Leadership Lake Wales class (an annual program offered by the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce). The UIC group meets on the first Thursday of every month at the B St Center at 8 am. This group is dedicated to having an on-going dialogue about diversity issues and bringing our community together.
A Community Pool
The talk of building a City pool has gone on for decades. At this point the City Commission has set aside $1 million, which was realized from the sale several years ago of the Cooperative Fruit property on US 27 at Hunt Brothers Road. This money is in a separate line item account and is accruing interest. Presently there is about $40,000 in interest proceeds, and they continue to grow. But many questions remain, with the principal question being how the operation, maintenance, and capital replacement costs for the pool will be funded. Community pools elsewhere have annual operations and maintenance costs of over $100,000, and an additional amount on the order of $20,000 annually must be set aside for capital replacement costs.

UIC has offered its services in the quest to build a pool. The UIC is working with the new director of the YMCA, Nate Seidl, who has experience in the building of a community swimming pool and has generously volunteered to help. At last Tuesday’s workshop of the City Commission, UIC asked the Commission if they and Nate could work on this project, and they bring a new and fresh perspective. A community pool is a desirable amenity. Why not survey the community to determine the best way to address the questions surrounding this project, and then move ahead. The City Commission agreed, and a proposed schedule for this survey was presented by Nate at Monday’s meeting of the City’s Recreation Advisory Board:

  • April 2 – UIC meeting, discussion of the survey instrument

  • May – begin survey work

  • Upon completion of the survey, prepare the report to bring back to the City Commission in August or September.

There is more to come on this project, and UIC and Nate are to be commended for their willingness to work on this project.
The Amazing Lake Wales Sense of Community
It occurred to me that this effort is typical of the Lake Wales sense of community. Lake Wales has the strongest sense of community of any of the towns that I have lived in. This sense – or spirit - of community is evident in many ways, but let’s just look at a few examples in the field of recreation.

This past Saturday was Opening Day for the Lake Wales Little League, which has been in existence since 1954. This is a parent-run organization, and the parents of the children playing in the league also volunteer to coach teams, work at the concession stands, and serve as announcers and official scorekeepers. Last Saturday was also the Opening Day for the Spring Season of the Ridge Soccer League, another parent-run organization that also has parents serving as coaches, concession stand workers, and volunteers.

Both of these leagues play on city-owned facilities, and the City is a partner with them in providing these wonderful recreational opportunities for our children. Other City recreation partners include the Boys and Girls Club, and the Little Theatre, both of which are also housed in City-owned facilities and also provide superb recreational programs.

The Pram Fleet operates out of a City-owned facility on the shore of Lake Wailes. For many decades this parent-run organization has taught our children how to sail, and on Sunday afternoons during sailing season the view of the little sail boats on the lake with their student sailors is priceless.

With all of these partnerships, the effort by Unity in Community is another example of the Spirit of Lake Wales. All of the individuals serving our community in these and other community organizations are to be commended.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Well-Trained & Experienced Workforce

In this space last week there was a review of the mix of education and experience in the City’s senior management team, and an assessment of the educational achievements in the police and fire departments. Let’s take a look at the other City departments and the credentials held by those City employees.
Our City library is a fantastic resource by any measure. The library staff of 18 members includes five professional librarians - persons holding a Master’s Degree in Library Science. There are also five other library employees with bachelor’s degrees, and one with an associate’s degree. The library staff members have many years of experience and hundreds of hours of training in specialized library topics, such as archiving, cataloging, and information searching on the internet through a variety of databases. In addition, three library staff members are fluent in French and two are fluent in Spanish.
The City’s Utility Department is responsible for providing drinking water, and wastewater collection, treatment, and disposal. These activities are fundamental to our community and are highly regulated by state and federal agencies. State regulations require that the City have individuals working in these fields who hold state utility licenses, which are issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Obtaining such a license requires the passage of an extensive course and a number of years of experience.

The City’s water department employs two individuals with a state license in water plant operations, and three individuals with water distribution system licenses. The City’s wastewater department employs two individuals with wastewater plant operation licenses, and three individuals with wastewater collection system licenses. Employees in this department also have state licenses in other specialized areas, including one employee who is a certified plumber, and another employee who is a certified electrician. In addition to these licenses, training, and experience, one member of the department has a master’s degree, and one staff member has an associate’s degree. Two staff members are fluent in Spanish.

Planning, Zoning, and Development
The City’s Planning, Zoning, and Development Department is responsible for the processing of development requests, the enforcement of zoning code and building regulations, and city compliance with the state Growth Management Act and development related laws. The department has 7 staff members, and in addition to the director’s credentials there is one individual holding a master’s degree, and one staff member with an associate’s degree. The two staff members responsible for building inspection jointly have 42 certifications in state building code areas of specialty. Together, the individuals in this department have many years of experience in both the public and the private sector. Two members of this department are fluent in Spanish.
Finance Department
The Finance Department also carries out a fundamental task in ensuring that all funds are properly accounted for according to generally accepted accounting principles. In addition to the Finance Director’s credentials mentioned in last week’s column, the department has staff members with bachelor’s degrees and one staff member with an associate’ degree. The employees in this department also have many years of experience in both the public and private sector. Two department members are fluent in Spanish.
City Clerk’s Office
The City Clerk’s Office is responsible for recording and maintaining the official records of the City, City Commission agenda production, citizen board membership, records management, elections, and transcribing minutes for the City Commission, as well as other duties. This office has two employees, one with a bachelor’s degree. Both employees have years of experience in the public sector.
Public Services: Parks, Building Maintenance, Cemetery
In addition to the Director’s credentials, this department with 15 staff members has one individual with a bachelor’s degree. This department also has staff members with many years of experience in both the public and private sectors.
Support Services: Streets, Fleet Maintenance, Purchasing, Inventory
This department has 13 staff members and one individual holds a bachelor’s degree. These employees have many years of experience in both the public and private sectors as well as specialized training in their fields.
Information Services; and Human Resources
These two departments have a total of 4 staff members and one employee with a bachelor’s degree, and one employee with an associate’s degree.

The City of Lake Wales is fortunate to have a well-educated, trained, and experienced workforce!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Well-Educated & Experienced Group

In my presentation of the City’s Annual State of the City Report to the Chamber of Commerce, I noted that I started working in the public sector in 1972. I have worked in a number of different settings since then. I am very happy to say that the people that I work with now – my fellow employees at the City of Lake Wales – are the best group of people I have ever worked with. I am proud to be a Lake Wales city employee and to be associated with this fine group of individuals. They are dedicated to their work, which is sometimes carried out under very difficult circumstances. It is not uncommon to receive a letter or phone call thanking the City for the work of City employees.

In my experience, working for a City or for any agency in the public sector can be a trying experience, and in many ways a different environment than the private sector. I remember when a new employee came to work for the City several years ago after years of working for private companies in various types of construction. He said that on some projects, on a particular high profile project downtown, he felt as if everyone in town was watching him and carefully measuring the pace of progress. I told him that I too had private sector experience, and there are times when City projects attract a lot of attention. But this is to be expected – after all, we are dealing with public funds and doing the public’s business. On the plus side, there is a feeling of accomplishment in doing a good job for the people of our town.
Many Skills Are Required
The operation of a city requires a wide variety of skills and educational credentials. From library-specific college degrees, to fire and police certifications, to state licenses for utility department procedures, to state certifications for building inspection, to accounting certifications, there are many skills required. Our town’s employees have a good mix of education and experience to carry out these widely diverse work tasks.

For example, let’s look at the senior management team for the City staff. This group consists of myself as City Manager, the Assistant City Manager, and 11 department heads. In terms of education, six persons have Master’s Degrees; three persons have Bachelor’s Degrees, and one department head has nearly completed her Bachelor’s Degree. Another team member has an Associate’s Degree.

There is also a healthy mix of experience on this team, with individuals who have worked for the City of Lake Wales for many years, and others who have come to the City recently. Again, in this group of 13 individuals: One person has worked for the City for over 30 years; three people have worked for the City for over 20 years; three people have worked for the City for over 10 years; five people have worked for the City for 5 years or more; and one department head was recently hired here.
Of the six people who have worked for the City less than 10 years, four have over 20 years of experience in their fields, and one has more than 10 years of experience that was brought to the team.

Another interesting question involves where these 13 individuals were living when they came to work for the City. Five were living in the Lake Wales area, three were living elsewhere in our county, four were living elsewhere in Central Florida, and one person who had lived in Florida previously and wished to return was living in another state.

The amount of education and training among other City employees is no less impressive. In the police department alone, there are 8 officers with Associates’ Degrees, 8 officers with Bachelor’s Degrees, 3 with Master’s Degrees, and one department member with a juris doctorate. In the Fire Department there are 14 firefighters with Associates’ Degrees, and one Department member with a Bachelor’s Degree. Many employees have taken advantage of the City’s educational incentive program.

The Police and Fire Departments also emphasize training. Within the past 18 months, six firefighters achieved their paramedic licenses through a City program and are now using their skills for our benefit. The Police Department also provides more training than the state mandated minimum for our officers every year.

We are fortunate to have a well-educated and experienced group of City employees working for the betterment of our town!