Perhaps he will be the mayor who will go down in Lake Wales history as the one who applauded others, frequently.
Mayor Gene Fultz, in his State of the City address at the Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce Luncheon, held Friday at First Baptist Church, thanked elected officials, city staff, commissioners, the city manager, the chief of police and the building official, asking for a “well-deserved round of applause for their dedication and the professionalism they bring to the job.”
Then he turned his attention to what he says has been a lot of “positive changes” in Lake Wales over the past year.
He said he was thankful for the honor of being elected as the first “citywide mayor,” since a city charter change approved by Lake Wales voters in 2012, the mayor is now elected by the whole city instead of being chosen from among the commission members.
“The mayor was also assigned new duties including presenting the State of the City address, and to take a leadership role in promoting the overall quality of life, economic development, and other areas important to the progress and well-being of the community,” he said.
Regarding economic development, he noted that last spring, the city of Lake Wales struck a partnership with the Lake Wales Chamber to create an Economic Development Council, and Jim Bell was hired as its director in June.
Bell, effective March 31, has tendered his resignation, however.
Development has since created an inventory of available commercial properties, Fultz noted, “to aid in promoting sites for commercial and individual development.”
The mayor noted some entryway areas and other eyesores have been cleaned up and relationships established with county level officials to bring attention to Lake Wales. There has been some commercial growth along U.S. 27. Several new businesses went into Shoppes on the Ridge on U.S. 27. Eye Specialists constructed a new building, and Dunkin Donuts, Anytime Fitness, Subway, Aspen Dental, and Jahna Chiropractic Clinic now occupy formerly vacant spaces. The Mahalak Family acquired ownership of the new Lake Wales Dodge Dealership on Hwy. 27.”
Fultz noted that additional applications have been made for development of vacant commercial property along U.S. 27, “which testifies to the rebound of economic growth in this area of Lake Wales.”
The mayor says there are plans for new residential growth along Chalet Suzanne Road coming in 2014. Of these, he notes that Leoma’s Landing plans to build 300 single-family houses. “Across from Eagle Ridge Mall, Equinox Group proposes 240 apartments,” he adds.
In August, a new fire station was added on Chalet Suzanne Road, which is to be completed, the city hopes, in March this year.
But there are some concerns, citywide, and that would be the downtown area.
Historic Downtown Lake Wales has been in need for some time.
He notes that a $25,000 grant was awarded by the Florida State Department of Economic Opportunity for the “Premier Streets” project, which will develop “a photo-illustrated action plan for improving the appearance of the downtown historic district.” “Hopefully this will begin the process of revitalizing the City’s urban core into a more robust environment to serve both its daytime working population and the city as a whole, as a retail arts and entertainment district. A key to this effort will be a firm decision on the future of the Walesbilt Hotel, which is both an icon and an eyesore. If it can be successfully repurposed, downtown could prosper, but if it can’t, then it must be removed to eliminate blight on the prospects of downtown development,” he said.
And then there has been improvement at the Lake Wales Airport. In March 2013, the airport master plan update study was completed, identifying future projects and allowing for a runway extension.
“This will allow for larger corporate planes to land in Lake Wales,” said Fultz.
The runways need safety upgrades and so does Airport Road.
The mayor notes that the city has received requests for the construction of two new private hangers at the airport.
Work has begun to revitalize parks and recreation, including replacement of old and broken playground equipment.
The old gazebo at the Lake Wales Pier was replaced and a new fountain, with lights, was installed in the lake at Central Avenue and U.S. 27, one entrance into the city.
Resurfacing of the trail is ahead, provided for by a Recreation Trails Program grant that the City received from the State of Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the amount of $160,000.
The basketball court at Lincoln Avenue Park will be repaired and improved because of an agreement with the AAS Foundation (Amar’e Alexis Stoudemire), Fultz said.
There were other improvements this year, he noted, including renovations at the Lake Wales Library. He commended the city’s public works staff, and the sidewalk and storm drain repairs, plans for the new cemetery, and the work of the police department in strengthening community relationships “with emphasis in the minority sectors.”
In a phone interview after the mayor’s address at the luncheon, the city police chief, Chris Velasquez, shared remarks of Fultz’ presentation.
“I think it’s a good indication of the positive changes that have been happening in our city. I was happy to hear positive comments about the police department, and not only that, but that progress seems to be occurring. The right folks are in the right places in many departments and many organizations, and it’s starting to gain a forward momentum.”
City Manager Ken Fields said he thought the mayor’s summary was pretty accurate.
He says it is good that the city has been working on a lot of things that “indicate progress is getting made.”
Fields noted it was a “sort of visible sign that the city is paying attention to its environment.”
Regarding the Grand Hotel, he notes, that in its current condition, “People drive into town and look at that thing and say why would I want to put a business here?” adding that the city has a choice of whether to move aggressively to take action or give developer Ray Brown more time.
The only legal action at this time, he noted, would be that of code enforcement, the same as the authority the city would have over any private property owned in the city limits.