Belle Glade to gain more than 200 jobs as Orlando-area builder expands to South Florida

BELLE GLADE — Belle Glade is expected to pick up more than 200 jobs over the next decade as Apopka-based design-builder Finfrock expands into Palm Beach County with a 140,000-square foot manufacturing facility on 94 acres in the Glades Gateway Commercial Park.

The jobs, less noteworthy in other, more affluent parts of the county, would be a huge win in Belle Glade, a city of 20,000 along the southeast bank of Lake Okeechobee.

On March 9, county commissioners are expected to consider a package of economic incentives for Finfrock in exchange for the 200-plus concrete manufacturing, trucking, drafting, electrical-repair, construction and office-administration jobs the company says it will generate over the next 10 years.

Those jobs are expected to pay in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, well above the area’s median household income of just under $26,000.

In addition to the 200-plus Finfrock jobs, an unknown number of ancillary construction and building jobs are expected to be created as the company builds its precast concrete manufacturing and administrative offices facility.

Finfrock plans to invest $36 million in the facility, with construction expected to begin this year.

“This is big news,” said Kelly Smallridge, president and chief executive officer of the county’s Business Development Board, which works to bring businesses to the county. “This is probably the biggest project to hit the Glades in 20 years.”

Smallridge said the five-year economic impact is expected to reach $242 million.

Jobs could change Glades’ narrative

Belle Glade, an hour away from West Palm Beach, has had a long, painful history of economic difficulty. Many who live in the city work in front-end, service-industry jobs or in agriculture and have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.

More than 41 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The city’s unemployment rate is often five to seven times higher than that of the county’s overall unemployment rate.

A combination of factors – the city’s distance from transportation arteries like Interstate 95, its poverty and the attendant scarcity of high-skill workers – have made attracting economic development a tall order in the Glades.

Smallridge said Finfrock’s decision to build in Belle Glade changes the narrative of the area.

“I think this is transformational for the whole community and will provide some hope that economic development is coming their way,” she said.

Finfrock employs engineers, architects, cost estimators and construction managers to help its clients design and build facilities.

Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.

The company, founded in 1945, helped design the new 720-bed student housing complex at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, and it was the architect, structural engineer and precast concrete manufacturer for the 450,000-square foot Surfside Inn and Suites in Orlando, which opened in 2019.

“We are looking forward to expanding our presence in the South Florida market through our commercial, multifamily and mixed-use projects,” Finfrock President Bill Finfrock said in a statement released Monday.

That statement was the culmination of what Smallridge described as a 17-month odyssey to bring Finfrock to Belle Glade.

She said that, when she first learned that Finfrock would consider expanding into Palm Beach County, she pitched them on Belle Glade.

“I said, ‘Are you familiar with the Glades?’ ” Smallridge said. “They said, ‘What?’ “

But as Smallridge and Belle Glade’s leaders bore in, Finfrock apparently liked what they heard.

Partnerships with schools planned

Belle Glade had willing civic leaders, a county open to economic incentives and available land, principally the site of the old Glades Correctional Institution, a state prison that closed in 2011 with the site being sold to local investors three years later.

There were high hopes that the site – off Orange Avenue Circle, behind Lakeside Medical Center – could be home to some type jobs-providing economic development. But such hopes are often dashed in the Glades, where projects have struggled to make the leap from conception to execution.