BELLE GLADE — Following a bus tour of the abandoned Glades Correctional Institution in September 2013, Belle Glade City Manager Lomax Harrelle convinced Gov. Rick Scott to find a way to make the former prison property available as a possible site for businesses to locate in the Glades area. The closing of the prison in 2011 had cost the community 400 jobs and significant economic activity.
As a result of Mr. Harrelle’s plea to the governor, the state put the prison property up for public auction in early 2014, and a group of local Belle Glade natives were the successful bidders. City Manager Harrelle immediately went to work executing a plan to annex the 189-acre prison property, along with another 565 adjacent acres, thereby increasing the city’s size by 25 percent overnight. This was, by far, the largest annexation in Belle Glade’s history and signaled the city’s commitment to prioritizing economic development.
Mr. Harrelle is something of a legend in the Glades for his ability to lobby state and county officials to assist the community he manages. By orchestrating this huge annexation, he was now putting Belle Glade in a position to have some say in its own economic future development. It would prove to be a key ingredient in what was to take shape at the old prison property.
Along with the annexation, Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson and his fellow city commissioners had the foresight to zone this property for industrial usage. Henry Rionda Jr., managing partner of BGI Group LLC, the local investors that bought the prison and who include myself, announced that the site would be called Glades Gateway Commerce Park in October 2014.
Almost immediately after the annexation, the city and BGI Group began to get inquiries about the property. News articles helped stimulate interest. The Business Development Board of Palm Beach County sent some early prospects out west to “kick the tires.” Even the rail line that bisected the old prison referred commercial developers to the new Glades Gateway Commerce Park for a look. While many of the prospects ended up being unqualified, unsuitable or not serious, gradually pieces began to come together.
In early 2017, Mr. Rionda was contacted by an Aventura firm that was forming a partnership with a subsidiary of the Israeli government to bring the highly specialized military and defense training techniques — for which the Israeli security forces have become famous — to the United States. And, this group was considering retrofitting a former prison facility as their “training academy.”
It just so happened that there was such a prison available in Belle Glade, and City Manager Harrelle and Mayor Wilson had a city government that had both the knowledge and the desire to find a way to allow this innovative private-sector idea to work within the traditional bureaucracy that snuffs out many ideas before they get started.
This company wasn’t looking for “government incentives” or “public funding.” IMI Florida Academy just needed a local government entity that was determined to make good things happen in their community. And, IMI found that in the City of Belle Glade. IMI Florida Academy purchased 64 of the available 189 acres. It was the 64 acres that contains the actual prison compound itself.
Glades Gateway Commerce Park had many things making it attractive to businesses wishing to locate in the Glades area. It was truly “shovel-ready,” with features like the industrial zoning the city had already approved, existing availability of water, sewer, electric and natural gas utilities, 2,700 lineal feet of rail siding, a half-mile of frontage on U.S. 441, and, perhaps most important, within a 100-mile radius of 7 million people.
The Business Development Board (BDB), which works hard promoting the economic development of Palm Beach County, also puts in a lot of effort focusing on helping the depressed Glades economy. The BDB was instrumental in helping to attract what, thus far, will be the largest employer at Glades Gateway — a major company, Universal Forest Products. Universal Forest Products is scheduled to begin site preparation soon on a huge, 400,000-square-foot factory that, when operational, will employ approximately 200 people, making this company one of the largest employers in the Glades.
Lomax Harrelle made the most of that bus ride with the governor five years ago. In total, Glades Gateway Commerce Park, site of the former state prison, will be the home to nine businesses, combining to generate 477 jobs in Belle Glade, statistically a very significant number for the Glades. Here is a summary of those businesses:
• Los Vaqueros Inc. — a supplier of food products to primarily Hispanic groceries in the South Florida area, employing approximately six in the Glades operation. Los Vaqueros retrofitted one of the former prison buildings into their new refrigerated distribution warehouse. Los Vaqueros also leases part of its space to a new HVAC company that employees another six individuals.
• Growers Management Inc. — an agricultural management firm with a long history in the Glades, and Orsenigo Farms Inc., a highly diversified farming operation known throughout the country for its excellent quality of winter vegetables, combined to renovate two of the former state-owned buildings into a beautiful complex. Together, these firms provide jobs for approximately 65 employees.
• World Trade Petroleum — this company is owned and operated by entrepreneurs from Romania who have patented burnt-oil recycling technologies. They are building a sophisticated processing plant on site and have expanded their original plans for the Belle Glade location. The initial phase will employ 35, and WTP’s second phase, expected to be underway next July, will eventually employ 100 at this location.
• Rio-Bak Corporation — the Western Division of this Palm Beach County-based construction company is a familiar name in the Glades and was a major player in the organizing of BGI Group LLC. Rio-Bak Corp. has five employees at Glades Gateway.
• ASAP Installations LLC — this company provides an innovative approach to sheet piling for commercial projects, road and bridges, water management and shoreline protection. ASAP Installations are currently providing five jobs at their Belle Glade location. The company’s headquarters is in Miramar.
• IMI Florida Academy — the largest landowner at Glades Gateway Commerce Park with 64 acres, this is the first IMI Academy in the United States. The original IMI Academy was established in 1999 by veterans of the Israeli security forces. IMI Florida Academy will offer advanced training to law enforcement, military and security industry professionals on advanced methods and skills derived from the “Israeli Military and Homeland Security Experience.” When fully operational, IMI Florida Academy expects to employ approximately 90 people.
• Universal Forest Products — Universal Forest Products is a huge, publicly traded company, headquartered in Michigan. This company is a major manufacturer and supplier of wood and concrete construction products to big box stores such as Home Depot and Lowes. The company plans on building a 400,000 square foot factory — the size of four Super Walmarts — on the portion of Glades Gateway Commerce Park that fronts on U.S. 441. Expected employment during operation is approximately 200. There will also be a huge number of jobs generated during the construction of the plant.
Tom Altman, an investor in BGI Group LLC, is a stockbroker at Morgan Stanley.