BELLE GLADE — Three of the five city commissioners and a few citizens of the area surrounding the former Gove Elementary School had a lively discussion in a special meeting Wednesday evening regarding the former school site’s future.
The mayor called the meeting so they could consider sending their request for proposals (RFP) for a “workforce housing development” on the 10-acre property back out as either a renewed RFP — whose terms still might be altered — or as a request for qualifications (RFQ), as was suggested by one audience member during the public comments part of the meeting.
Only one proposal was received, from Community Partners. The three commissioners present all voted to reject it after hearing about a half-hour’s worth of comments from the public. They were looking for more participation and input on the redevelopment project made possible by the Palm Beach County School District’s donation to the city of the 10-acre property, specifically for housing.
Mayor Steve Wilson heartily thanked the one respondent. “I don’t know if they’re here tonight or not, but Community Partners, thank you for wanting to build part of our community by submitting … it tells me a lot about you that you’re willing to do some things in our community. A lot of people do a lot of talking, but you were willing to put a team together and submit a request to us to develop within the City of Belle Glade.”
But he also said “I’m a little disappointed” that the RFP did not draw more responses.
In the end, the quorum of three commissioners made no decision except to ask City Manager Lomax Harrelle and staff to bring a redone RFP — or to recommend a different approach — to a future meeting for approval. Wilson also left open the idea of having another workshop soon about the Gove site.
Asked to summarize where they stood, Harrelle said: “The school district had to make some decision on the 10-plus acres. They knew it would take a lot of money to take those buildings down … (instead) they insisted they wanted to be a part of helping to alleviate the housing shortage in Belle Glade and in the entire Glades.”
He said the commission sent out the RFP and directed staff to “make it as loose as possible, for lack of a better term, to give anyone that was interested in moving forward that project, what they would suggest they would like to bring to the City of Belle Glade as far as housing, whether it be real homeownership, a mix of both (that and subsidized rental housing) or whatever.”
City Commissioner Johnny Burroughs Jr. said he was also dismayed by the lack of response. He talked about asking for a “broader vision” than just so-called workforce or affordable housing:
“Maybe modify it in order to make it a more attractive RFP … We have to get the right organization, the right people, when it comes to creating better-quality homes in our community. I think we should consider opening it up to being some type of mixed-use as opposed to 100% workforce (because) affordable housing requirements are pretty stringent” for bidders to be able to meet, especially the financing part, in seeking available grants. He said he knew that the city wanted to move quickly but urged more consideration.
Vice Mayor Mary Ross Wilkerson thanked Community Partners also and then commented:
“I know we have a lot of people who want to rent as well as people who want to buy … if we were to do a market poll. You need to have a space where the apartments are and where the condos are … if we have to put in a park, then that’s what we have to do.”
Wilson then remarked: “How we get out of the starting block is how we get out of the race. This is a golden opportunity to do something really, really nice to attract a lot of our teachers and police officers (and other workers) … an opportunity to make good on our word with the school district. We want a development where people come in and say, ‘Wow, that’s nice, that’s in the Glades?’”
City Clerk Debra R. Buff introduced several speakers after reading emails to the commissioners that she asked Deputy City Manager Beverly Scott to address. Some were about various other topics, such as the Palm Beach County Office of the Inspector General’s report released earlier in the week that questioned some of the city’s personnel travel policies. But another inquiry from former commission candidate Robert C. Mitchell asked that the city act to ensure the hiring of local workers to work on this project if the RFP will be sent out again.
Scott noted that the city government does not have the power to require such things of developers, but they could ask for a minimum percentage of local workers to be employed on the job.
There followed comments from three other residents of the area nearby the proposed development.
A resident of Fleming Drive said if there is a housing development, he wanted the city “to do it right. I don’t want the things that come out of (this type of housing) and devalue my property or cause worries about security … for the school next door or the neighborhood behind me. We all in the southeast section, all along Fleming Drive — everybody’s homes are nice, we take care of them. They’re an investment because they know if they had to sell, they’d make more money than they paid.” He advocated building for and encouraging new homeowners.
“No apartments, no condos, just single-family housing, minimum size, that gives people an investment,” he suggested, saying 1,500-square-foot (at minimum) homes would give the city a “nice tax base.” He left the podium to applause.
Then a local resident who said he had experience with construction projects spoke up. Steve Messam said he thought developers didn’t respond because, “Yes, it (the RFP) was open but it was also restricted to … only be workforce housing. When developers are trying to secure funding to actually build these projects, they are competing for tax credits. When you look at the workforce housing, to Commissioner Burroughs’ standpoint, there are a lot of hurdles to get that type of tax credits.”
He said there would be major concern about unit costs because builders have to worry about whether people will buy them. Messam urged the city to “take time to get more input from consultants and the development community to give you ideas of what makes the RFP or RFQ more attractive.”
Another woman went to the podium to say that the city commission needed to focus more on amenities in the city that will attract new residents, plus get the city looking better so that they can have some pride in where they live.
Mayor Wilson concluded: “We hear you loud and clear. Good comments, thank you! ... We are trying to make Belle Glade a more attractive place. You notice we’re getting the roads done slowly but surely, getting the pipes replaced — the hard-core things that we’re doing — that’s why you see the signs when you come into Belle Glade (saying ‘Pardon our Dust’).
“There’s a lot of work that’s been neglected throughout the years, and our city manager and staff and these city commissioners, we’re trying to get it done. The face of community will change once you get that.”
He addressed Burroughs and Wilkerson and the absent commissioners at the end:
“I want each one of you to sit down with the manager individually. We could have a workshop, (but) let’s go ahead and have those conversations and let him put something together … I don’t want to mislead people that we’re going out to renew the RFP, it may be an RFQ. That’s a good suggestion. Let’s let the CM put something together.”
The commissioners present seemed to agree with that consensus.
“I like that we can come together as a band of brothers and do this together,” the mayor finished.