Hendry and Glades counties are included in Gov. Rick Scott’s 12 Counties Initiative, meant to address the challenges of economic development in a dozen of the state’s most rural, least developed counties and build on the strengths that exist in each. This week, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and officials from several other state departments and agencies conducted roundtable meetings for “stakeholders” in both counties.
The Hendry County Roundtable took place the morning of Tuesday, July 10, at the John Boy Auditorium, 1200 S. W.C. Owen Ave in Clewiston.
DEO Director Cissy Proctor kicked off the meeting at 9 a.m. with an introductory address. Then the state agency officials and community stakeholders present were introduced, and there followed a short community overview for the benefit of unfamiliar officials. Next, for about an hour, various speakers talked about the community’s major goals, and participants were able to vote on which they considered most important. After a short break, they all discussed what they were taking away from the conference and what would happen next, then officials wrapped up the morning’s activities around noon.
DEO officials circulated a checklist before the meeting showing “opportunities for improved economic outcomes” and listed these categories of difficulties the counties might be facing: high unemployment; minimal labor force growth, low labor force participation rate, annual wages below state average, fate of individuals with disabilities above state average, low population growth, few job opportunities, recipients of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) aid from the Department of Children and Families above the state average, half of workforce commute to another county, poverty rate above state average, food stamp recipients above state average, and low educational attainment.
Hendry was declared to be challenged in every single one of those categories.
The goal of the three-hour meeting was for the more than 20 state agency representatives who attended to actually visit the community, listen to local stakeholders themselves list the community’s needs and to help them brainstorm about solutions.
After each of the dozen Florida counties have had their local stakeholder roundtable meeting, DEO is to develop action plans specific to each county for presentation to their county governing bodies.
County Commissioner Emma Byrd was one of the local officials who took part in the meeting. “It went very well,” she said. “Basically we talked about the needs of the county, and when we took the time to vote, the (top) need was infrastructure, (then) affordable housing, which seems to be a problem in our area even to get someone to just come in, but we need that type of help. So we were reaching out to the state, letting them know that we need help.”
She said that basic infrastructure needs such as sewer and water service need to be addressed, because the lack of them makes new housing too costly to build and thus too expensive for most people to buy.
“I would like to see things set in place and the process being moved forward because it’s a need that’s been there for a long time; it’s not something that happened overnight.”
Two other issues she listed were education and local amenities. “Education was another big topic, and they talked about vocational agriculture education, and they talked about shadowing, to make sure that’s the area (students) want to be in, to prepare our young people for the real world,” Ms. Byrd said. “And they also spoke about bringing them home and keeping them home, but we have to have something to offer for them to be here, to stay here. For example, my children — they come back to visit but none of them live here.”
She said that overall, it was a good listening exercise for the state officials.
Commissioner Michael Swindle, who works as workforce development director for the Hendry public schools, said he was pleased by the roundtable session because “that was the second-highest goal that the group overall set and gave the directive to the state agencies that we needed the most help in.”
Among the goals cited, he said, were “being able to spin up workforce development training, to be able to have tuition reimbursement for students in our area because we live in an area of economic concern.”
Mr. Swindle continued, “We made a very clear statement to them that we needed programs, we needed to be able to fund the programs, we needed to be able to get students to be able to come to the programs with tuition vouchers so that we could receive training for our residents.”
And as for affordable workforce housing, “we can’t put in workforce housing if we don’t have sewer, water, power and roads. Infrastructure alone makes it economically impossible for us to do it,” he said.