OKEECHOBEE — Many on social media seem to believe there are unseen “good ol’ boys” running the town of Okeechobee. Each time the topic of new business is brought up, many are quick to accuse the “good ol’ boys” of forbidding growth in the county and city.
Recently, a post on a Facebook page asked what was going on with the WaWa convenience store scheduled to move in on State Road 70.
“I heard they are not coming here because of a money fight with the city and county. If that is the case, which I hope it is not again, the city and county have let the people of Okeechobee down with new stuff coming to Okeechobee just like the Bass Pro coming here and now going on two years,” posted Mark Graham.
Although several people spoke up explaining that WaWa is still coming, and the WaWa company is responsible for the delay, not the city or county officials, many were still quick to blame the good ol’ boys.
“Okeechobee is stagnant. No new business in or out, no new growth. That’s exactly how they want to keep it, too. It’s a shame but until the people in charge care nothing will change,” wrote Destiny Moore.
“We all know anything new that would change Okeechobee or improve the economic situation there is ALWAYS held up and or blocked, I’m sure whatever is going on, they’ll probably end up pulling out because of the wishy washy process there,” wrote Kismet Messer.
Fred Brown spoke up saying, “Thats why we vote new county commissioners in this year; we need to quit crying and vote them out. The rich get richer and the poor stay poor.”
“Okeechobee always lets the people down with their greed! Taxes are outrageous! School and fire taxes especially outrageous! And no one goes to school after we paid it! And they closed the city fire department! I want a refund!” said Esmerelda Klinginhammer.
Tyrell Myricks said: “This town is afraid of change. They want to keep this town the way it is. This town doesn’t want to bring in certain people. It’s why there isn’t anything here. I agree we do need more here. We need more things for the kids and middle-aged people to do. Something outside of fish and cows. But, the chance of that actually happening is slim to none.”
“Okeechobee good ol’ boys don’t want anything new,” said Darla Garrett.
Others replied demanding the good old boys give them a Target or a Sonic or a Sonny’s or a dispensary. Bonnie Bennett claimed, “I have asked different dispensaries and every time they say they won’t let them in.”
Okeechobee County Commissioner Terry Burroughs, the current county board chairman, said he believes the days of the good ol’ boys are dead. “Whether or not that term is relevant is based on your own perspective,” he said. “There probably was a time in the past when people didn’t want to see more businesses come in, but things have changed over the last 20 or 30 years.” He went on to say, “Contrary to what you see on social media, the city council and the commission are actively working to bring in new businesses so we can have good-paying jobs for our people. The concept of the good ol’ boys is totally erroneous. Every member of the city council and every member of the commission today has worked very hard to change the dynamics in our community.”
He said there are many factors involved in bringing a business to Okeechobee. Companies want land that is site ready. People often think just because they have a piece of land sitting somewhere that it would be perfect for a business. What they don’t think about is the infrastructure, electricity, water, broadband. What is the zoning of the property? What type of access is there to the property? A site ready property is a piece of property that already has water, electric, broadband and is zoned appropriately. This is what most new businesses are looking for.
“I came back to this county after I retired in order to make this county better than what it used to be,” he said. “To do that, we have to change the perception. On social media, you hear these things, ‘The county commission don’t want WaWa here, so it’s not coming.’ With all of those types of stories, nobody has the desire to ask what is going on. They have the desire to perpetuate negativity. When you perpetuate negativity, everyone starts believing it.”
The commission has an economic development corporation. Megan Smith, president of the corporation, has worked diligently to bring in new businesses. Examples from the last three years include Bautech USA. Their company manufactures molded cement products and will hire approximately 20 employees. Their capital investment is about $3.5 million.
Milking R is putting in a processing plant out near the airport.
Brightmark is putting in bio-digesters out on Larson dairies. This won’t provide a lot of jobs but represents about a $30 million capital investment.
There are about 18 projects now that are looking at the possibility of coming to Okeechobee County. This would bring about 70 million in investments and 355 jobs if they come here.
“There are many opportunities we are working on, but that never comes out on social media,” Burroughs said. “I think often, the people saying those things on social media are not asking the questions, and they don’t listen to the board meetings or the city council meetings. They just make statements which have no value behind them.”
Making changes to entice young people to stay here is important to the city council and the commission. If the young people leave, only the older people will remain in Okeechobee and paying all the taxes, he said. “The objective that no one wants to pay attention to or acknowledge is the fact that we want our community to grow but in a managed arena. We want to manage the growth. We don’t want to be looking like a Port St. Lucie or Fort Pierce. We want to have growth, add jobs to our community and still maintain the values of our small town.
“I believe when people on social media say the good ol’ boys are keeping growth from coming to Okeechobee County, they’re just not informed,” said the commissioner.
Mayor Dowling Watford Jr. has been a part of the city government for over 30 years, which he said probably makes him one of the “good ol’ boys,” but he feels the “good ol’ boys” often get a bad rap.
He said the city is very supportive of not only the existing businesses but also of businesses coming in to Okeechobee. “New businesses are a new source of tax revenue and enhance our community,” he said. When new businesses come to town, they would be dealing with the city administrator and the building department.
“I would just say, particularly from the city administrator’s standpoint, he is very, very pro business and will do anything he possibly can to help them get whatever they need. He will work with them on permits, the technical review committee, anything to help them get approved. Being an engineer, he has a real advantage to be able to help them.”
The city has an industrial park with lots available and tries to give a good price on land when businesses come in. “I think most businesses coming in would agree our staff will bend over backwards to help them,” he said. There are zoning laws and land use restrictions that have to be adhered to, though, and that is something people don’t always understand.
“I am one of the good ol’ boys, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it,” he said. “The only thing I would say is we get criticized sometimes because we want to protect the character of our county. We don’t want to turn into a Broward County or Palm Beach County. We have a rural atmosphere here, agricultural based, and we want to protect that, because that’s why we are here. That sometimes gets us criticized, because we want to protect our lifestyle and way of life here. That doesn’t mean we don’t want businesses to come in,” the mayor declared. “It doesn’t mean we don’t want growth, but we want it in a managed, organized way that doesn’t take away from our lifestyle here. People move here because they like the rural atmosphere, the small town feel of the community,” Mayor Watford said.