In Florida, one sugar town's bittersweet change

Clewiston is losing its sugar plant – and wondering what comes next.

By , Correspondent

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    Looking forward, looking back: Anita Griffin, owner of the Dixie Fried Chicken and Seafood Café, worries about the consequences of US Sugar's departure from Clewiston.
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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.

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.”

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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.”

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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.

Chamness is used to new beginnings – and, in particular, new beginnings in Clewiston: Her family moved to the area from Cuba in 1961, when she was 15 months old. Her grandfather had worked as an administrator on a sugar farm in the island’s Sierra Maestra mountains, but was driven out by Fidel Castro’s guerrillas.

“This was a great community for my family to come to; it was a haven for us after having to deal with everything in Cuba. It meant tranquility, a good life, work, a safe environment for kids to grow up in,” she recalls wistfully. The question now is how to keep things that way.

US Sugar was created here in 1931 by Michigan industrialist Charles Stewart Mott, who’d bought out the bankrupt Southern Sugar. The company employed thousands, and built the city a pool, youth center, auditorium, and library. Through the decades, it paid for employees’ children to go to college, and created parks, tennis courts, ball facilities, and a golf course.

Butch Wilson, who spent 32 years at US Sugar until he was laid off last year, is now the curator at the Clewiston Museum. He recalls how the cost of a pack of gum jumped from a nickel to a quarter overnight after the US imposed a trade embargo on Cuba – a leading sugar producer – in the 1960s, and how US Sugar subsequently enjoyed some of its best boom years.

“The ripple effect of this closure will be devastating,” Mr. Wilson says. “But US Sugar was like family to me and so many others, and I’d rather we look back and remember the golden years.... There’s many years this company has provided for the good and given generously, and we have to be thankful for that.”

Nothing can replace the synergy between US Sugar and its home, says Wilson, describing how, in some cases, four generations in a family worked there: “Even if we start now, we still can’t bring industry in that will replace the loss we are going to take.”

Already, most of the traffic along Sugarland Highway consists of trucks carrying produce, and the range of local traders Chamness remembers from her childhood has, as in so many towns, been squeezed by time and Wal-Mart.

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Inside a glass case at the Clewiston Museum is a small brochure, worn and faded, dating from the mid-1920s when this dot on the map stood on the threshold of greatness, and the town aimed to draw land speculators and entrepreneurs looking to make it big.

“Florida the Utopia of the States, and Clewiston the heart of its wonderful glory and greatest promise, invites your keenest investigation,” the booklet reads. “The soil, the climate, the balmy sunshine, the land of everlasting youth are yours today ... if you will but heed the call of Clewiston, the city of opportunity, your opportunity.”

Over the ensuing eight decades, thousands took up the invitation. They came to fish, plant fruits and vegetables, and turn thousands of acres of swampland into fields of glistening sugar cane. In some ways, Clewiston’s challenge today is similar to that of 80 years ago: at a time of anxious uncertainty, to become, once again, a place of glory, promise, and something sweet.

“I’m going to look on the bright side,” says Anita Griffin, owner of the Dixie Fried Chicken and Seafood Café. Sitting at a table covered with a red-checkered cloth, she says she’s lost half her business since US Sugar began laying people off three years ago, and she fears what the future may hold. Still, she says, “It should be a time for new faces to come in and bring more jobs, fill out the town a little bit. Everybody’s been saying how bad it’s going to be and that the town will die, but a lot of things can happen in six years. We’ve got to make it happen.”

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