Rural Hendry County mixes economic woes, hope for new jobs
CLEWISTON, Fla. (AP) — The economic statistics from this corner of rural Florida are nothing short of dreadful. Hendry County has the state's worst unemployment rate by a wide margin. Job growth is anemic. Property values are languishing. Bank deposits are dwindling.
And yet Clewiston hardly looks like a ghost town. A steady stream of 18-wheelers rumbles through on U.S. 27. There's a new Hampton Inn under construction. The Holiday Inn Express just got a makeover that cost $850,000. Clewiston's marina and public golf course are bustling and well-maintained. The local bank is stable and profitable.
In the most eye-opening sign of life, U.S. Sugar, the area's main employer, is backing an ambitious plan to turn an airport outside of town into a cargo hub to handle Miami International Airport's overflow. That project promises to create 1,000 jobs in a region starved for jobs.
"This airport expansion could be a complete game-changer for the county," said housing analyst Kristine Smale, vice president at John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Fort Myers.
All of which creates a confusing set of signals. Hendry County might be a poster child for the decades-long decline of rural America. Or perhaps it's simply a throwback to another era, one where happiness didn't require a Starbucks on every corner and a Publix in every shopping center.
"It is kind of hard to read this town," said Luan Walker, who runs Sugar Realty and has built dozens of houses in Clewiston. "Are we closing down? Or are we growing?"
Walker laments a housing shortage and a lack of new construction that she sees hampering Clewiston's growth. But, like many residents of Hendry County, she tempers her critique of Clewiston's economic doldrums with a deep loyalty to its Mayberry ambience.
"It is the greatest little place on earth," Walker said.
Rural Florida's economic woes have emerged as a hot political topic. Critics of Gov. Rick Scott note that Florida's remarkable recovery over the past eight years has passed over some parts of the state.
Rural counties steadfastly backed Republican candidates. For example, 14 of the counties with the highest unemployment rates voted for President Donald Trump in November 2016 by an average of 58.2 percent.
In Hendry County, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 7,846 to 6,426. But Trump carried the county by a comfortable margin in winning 55.7 percent of the vote two years ago.
In Hendry County today, there are 16 percent fewer workers gainfully employed than there were in 2006, even as the county's population has grown. (By contrast, total employment in Palm Beach County expanded by 17 percent from the boom of 2006 to the boom of 2018.)
"Are we growing exponentially like the coastal communities?" asked Hendry County Commissioner Mike Swindle. "The answer is no, we're not."
In August, Hendry County — which stretches between Palm Beach and Lee counties south of Lake Okeechobee — had an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent, the worst among Florida's 67 counties and more than 2 percentage points higher than 66th place Hardee County.
The Florida citrus industry's struggles have dealt a blow to Hendry County, where two citrus processing plants have closed in recent years.
Meanwhile, Hendry County shows none of the hallmarks of prosperity exhibited by its neighbor to the east. There are no gated communities touting model homes, no high-end condos under construction.
The county of 40,000 has no university, no biotech labs, no venture-funded startups. There's not even a Publix in the county, let alone Target, Trader Joe's or Whole Foods.
"Everybody wants to know, 'When's Publix coming?'" Swindle said.
He hopes the answer is sometime after the AirGlades Airport begins accepting planes full of fresh-cut flowers from South America. For years, flowers grown in Bolivia, Colombia and elsewhere have landed at MIA, where they're inspected and briefly stored before being loaded onto trucks bound for the rest of the country.
With industrial real estate prices in Miami soaring and traffic increasing, AirGlades is pitching itself as a cheaper place for flower importers to process their perishables.
The $650 million airport project — backed by Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar and Hilliard Brothers, another large agricultural concern — awaits final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. If the FAA signs off, AirGlades Airport will add a runway, build a cold-storage facility and bring in Transportation Security Administration agents and Customs and Border Patrol officers.
Swindle hopes the first international cargo flight will land in 2021. He and other proponents of the project say the expanded airport would need 1,000 workers for such tasks as operating forklifts, inspecting flowers, maintaining air conditioning systems and repairing cargo planes. More than 1,000 spinoff jobs could follow.
"When you bring in upwards of 2,000 jobs, that stands to change the footprint and the landscape of Hendry County as we know it," Swindle said. "I see it as a huge win for the entire region."
It's unclear where all the workers would come from. Even with its worst-in-state unemployment rate, Hendry County had just 1,207 unemployed people in August. AirGlades presumably would attract workers from outside of Hendry County, including residents of Belle Glade to the east and Moore Haven to the north.
A lack of housing could hamper the airport's growth, said Thomas Felke, an assistant professor of social work at Florida Gulf Coast University.
"It's a catch-22," Felke said. "You can't really start developing things until you get people out there."
Of course, optimistic economic plans don't always work out. In one costly example, the state of Florida and the city of Port St. Lucie showered animation company Digital Domain with more than $100 million in subsidies. Instead of creating a lucrative hub for movie special effects, Digital Domain collapsed in 2012.
A splashy economic development project would be new territory for Hendry County. While Palm Beach County employers have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in state job subsidies over the past two decades, Hendry County hasn't won a penny of state incentives.
It's a harsh reality that has local leaders preaching self-sufficiency.
"We can't expect people to come in and turn our economy around," Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner. "We have to do it ourselves."
So far, Hendry County's attempts at creating jobs have fallen flat — and the rural county lacks the well-oiled marketing machine employed by larger counties. In one obvious contrast, the longtime head of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County is so effective at recruiting employers that the governor often cites her by name during public appearances. The equivalent organization in Hendry County, the Economic Development Council, has experienced turnover in its top spot and lacks a full-time staff.
Hendry County isn't alone in struggling to join the economic recovery that has taken hold in other parts of Florida. Many rural counties are struggling.
"The industries that are driving a lot of growth — leisure and hospitality, construction, health care — are located in urban areas," Gus Faucher, an economist at PNC Bank.
Or as, Gardner puts it: "We can't compete with beaches. We can't compete with Disney World."
With or without AirGlades Airport and its 2,000 jobs, some in Hendry County say the economy isn't as bleak as the statistics indicate. At First Bank of Clewiston, the loan portfolio is growing. The bank reported a profit of $1.7 million in the first half of 2018, and the institution has a rating of four stars, or "excellent," from BauerFinancial.
"We're not complaining about our economy being bad," Chairman and Chief Executive Miller Couse said. "We are prospering, just in a different way. It's a different economy. It's an agricultural economy."
Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, http://www.pbpost.com