How much hope was prompted by the expansion of Finfrock, a design-builder based in Apopka? Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson almost broke out his dancing shoes.
“James Brown had a hit song called, ‘I Feel Good,’ ” the mayor told about 80 guests gathered under the Lomax Harrelle Pavilion, which is named in honor of Belle Glade’s longtime city manager. “I want to tell y’all: I feel good! If I was 20 years younger, I’d be out there doing the James Brown split.”
Wilson did not, in fact, perform any splits. But he wasn’t the only one feeling good.
The hope: It’s the start of a run of economic development in the Glades
News that Finfrock plans to build a 140,000-square foot facility on the sprawling site of a former state prison reverberated throughout the Glades.
Joe Kyles, mayor of nearby South Bay, greeted the news with glee.
“If it’s good for Belle Glade, it’s good for South Bay, and it’s good for Pahokee,” he said. “The people of South Bay will be able to get jobs. The people from Pahokee will be able to get jobs, too.”
Big dreams and plans sometimes have foundered in the Glades, where, despite the draw of Lake Okeechobee, little beyond the vast agricultural industry has taken root.
Belle Glade Vice Mayor Mary Wilkerson said Finfrock’s expansion will begin to change that.
“It’s just the beginning of what we’re hoping for for the future,” she said. “People don’t realize out here in the Glades, it’s a gold mine.”
It doesn’t matter now, Wilkerson said, that it’s taken all this time for others to discover the region’s potential.
“Sometimes, things happen at a snail’s pace, and then things take off,” she said.
Finfrock’s executives seemed a bit taken aback by the fervor of the gratitude on display Thursday.
“The enthusiasm here is just amazing,” said Allen Finfrock, the company’s chief executive officer. “We’re all excited.”
Allen Finfrock’s brother, Bill Finfrock, the company’s president, added: “I don’t think that I expected this. You guys are the most welcoming group. We can’t wait to set about what we have promised to do, and that is to bring 200 jobs to Belle Glade.”
Finfrock has made a national mark for itself building public parking garages. The company has built hotels and residential buildings, including student housing complexes in Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee.
Finfrock wanted to expand its presence in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, and, a couple years ago, set about finding a location for a new facility from which it would handle new work.
When she learned of their plans, Kelly Smallridge, president and chief executive officer of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, told Finfrock executives she knew just the place: Belle Glade.
City, county, business group, local schools helped lure Finfrock to Glades
Smallridge worked with officials from Belle Glade, local high and technical schools and Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes the Glades. The county held out the prospect of a package of economic incentives in exchange for the promised jobs, which it recently approved.
That put Smallridge behind the podium Thursday, where she told the audience: “The Glades region is a diamond in the rough. I could barely sleep last night I was so excited.”
Allen Finfrock said the chance to get job applicants from local schools was a big help to Belle Glade’s bid.
“I was just really impressed with the local education facilities,” he said. “Belle Glade is just set up for great growth.”
Allen Finfrock said hiring will commence later this year and ramp up significantly next year, when construction of its facility is scheduled to be completed.
Smallridge said Finfrock’s expansion will help diversify the economy of the Glades, which is heavily reliant upon agriculture.
“For the residents of the Glades, today is a big celebration,” she said.
McKinlay, two years from completing an eight-year stint as the area’s county commissioner, said Finfrock’s expansion and the hope it represents is a particular source of pride.
She recalled meeting with Belle Glade officials six years ago, when she was contemplating a run for the commission.
One person eyed her warily, she said, and asked: “What are you going to do differently?”
McKinlay said she’d work to get the area’s infrastructure improved, which, in turn, would serve as a lure for economic development.
After some prodding from McKinlay and local officials, state legislators approved millions in funding for road and drainage improvements in the Glades.
That Finfrock chose Belle Glade and not another site was not lost on McKinlay.
“I’m just humbled to be here today,” she said. “I get to stand before you today as a politician who’s kept promises.”
Belle Glade celebrates company’s expansion that will bring 200 jobs to city (palmbeachpost.com)