In Florida, one sugar town's bittersweet change
Clewiston is losing its sugar plant – and wondering what comes next.
For nearly eight decades in this town on the banks of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, sugar has reigned. The main street here is Sugarland Highway; the real estate agency is Sugar Realty – located in a building called Sugar Suites; the football team plays at Cane Field Stadium; children play at Candy Cane Park; and at the Sugar Festival every spring, there’s an old-fashioned cane grinding, a Miss Sugar pageant, and, of course, a dessert contest. Welcome to America’s Sweetest Town, home of the US Sugar Corp., a place where cane fields line the highway – and where, suddenly, a lot of people are feeling sour.Skip to next paragraph
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Clewiston’s US Sugar Corp. is dissolving – sold to the state in a $1.75 billion land deal that will see the bulk of its 187,000 acres go to the Everglades Restoration Project. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s announcement last month came as a bolt from the blue for US Sugar’s 1,700 workers and a community that has long depended on the company’s presence.
For most of the 6,500 or so residents here, there is little to feel positive about. At the First Baptist Church of Clewiston, a sign appeared soon after the announcement, advertising the theme of Sunday’s sermon: “A word for the anxious, angry and fearful.”
But while there is plenty of despair, Mali Soto Chamness insists on a glimmer of optimism. As Clewiston’s mayor since 2001, she is determined to lead the town through its gloom and build opportunities that will enable people to once again, as an old brochure for this town urges, “Climb with Clewiston.”
“It’s not just because of the sugar that we are America’s Sweetest Town, but also because of the goodness of the people here, their steadfastness and resoluteness,” Ms. Chamness says.
Ensuring resilience is quite a task for a mayor who already works full time as an executive in the local bank. She knows the challenges are considerable: Property values are expected to go into a tailspin, leaving owners trapped in a town with few jobs; real estate deals that were in the works prior to the announcement have stalled.
Then there’s the tax loss. In all, Hendry County could lose up to 24 percent of its tax revenue. Once the company shuts, in six years, 30 percent of the county’s land will be owned by the state and federal governments, and all 1,700 US Sugar workers will have been laid off.
“Those 1,700 jobs represent dollars that could be spent in our community,” Chamness says. “Everything here is dependent on US Sugar and the people who work for it, who pay taxes, who purchase groceries here, send their kids to school here, bring family members to visit.... Take away US Sugar and what have you got? A big hole in the economy.”
Chamness has demanded assistance from the state in drawing up a detailed economic-development plan. Some locals think that Clewiston’s tourism trade could be expanded to take fuller advantage of the fine local fishing and birding. Others talk of agricultural opportunities, ethanol production, and new jobs from the Everglades Restoration Project and the proposed creation of an inland port at nearby South Bay. Clewiston has also been working to attract corporate dollars with the creation of a commerce park here, although the project, which began four years ago, has not brought in a single job.