Pahokee City Manager Chandler Williamson listens as I tell him what I heard in the waiting area outside his office at City Hall. “A woman paying a utility bill said into her cell phone, ‘I’m in Pahokee,'” I tell him. “There was a pause. Then I heard a male voice on the other end say loudly, ‘Pahokee!?'” At that, he winces.
Williamson, who in February began his third year as city manager, is charged with improving the image of one of the oldest municipalities in Palm Beach County (cityofpahokee.com). Incorporated in 1922, it prospered during the early part of the 20th century because the city, along with others in the Glades, supplied a wide variety of produce and lots of it to the booming areas along the coast — most notably, West Palm Beach.
He cites three main reasons for Pahokee’s current problems: the decline of agriculture in the Glades, as well as the city’s “neglected infrastructure” and its “municipal failure at the administrative level.”
Williamson holds a bachelor of science degree in political science and public policy, as well as a master’s degree in public administration. He is working on his doctoral degree in public administration and is writing his dissertation now.
He knows the serious problems he faces: “Our brand is damaged. Relationship-building is a priority. We also need to fix our infrastructure.”
The city’s crown jewel — the marina, long derided in many media reports as “neglected” — is undergoing a $1 million Wave-Attenuation Repair Project to reduce wave action inside the breakwater and thus make the facility more attractive to boaters. The city leases, from the state of Florida, the land on which the marina and adjacent campground are built.
Many streets need to be repaved, and some have been. In one case, Williamson says, “I had a resident tell me that he had played on the street in the 1970s and said to me ‘You’re just repairing it now?!'”
Chandler Williamson worked in farming
Williamson grew up in the small South Carolina town of Coward (population 751 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with Pahokee’s 5,962 that year). Later, in the early 1980s, he picked tobacco. “I grew up working on a farm. I know hard labor,” he says.
He feels confident in the future of Pahokee, especially with the improvements going on now to the marina, streets and elsewhere. “This city has made a turn,” Williamson says. “We’ve positioned Pahokee to be promoted like it never has before. We want to be a ‘destination city.'”
He wants to use his city’s proximity to Lake Okeechobee as a selling point. “Lake O will never disappear. Other places in Florida that have lakes are thriving. Our marina is the main economic engine for the city.”
Also planned for the marina: $1.2 million worth of improvements that include new fuel tanks and more parking. The current tanks have never been used, so no boats stop for fuel and therefore the tanks generate no income for Pahokee. “That’s revenue that sails by this city every day,” Williamson grouses.
Development to the east will help
Another of the forces driving Pahokee’s coming prosperity will be residential and commercial developments in Palm Beach County’s now-rural areas — especially those along Southern Boulevard (State Road 80) west of Loxahatchee — Williamson predicts.
The closest major residential community to Pahokee, Arden, will eventually have 2,000 homes on its 1,200 acres. Sales recently opened. Arden, whose address is 19425 Southern Blvd., Wellington, is just east of 20-Mile Bend and about 20 miles from Pahokee’s eastern border.
Pahokee city manager is realistic
Williamson harbors no illusions about the daunting tasks facing him. The largest is, arguably, improving the media’s and non-Glades residents’ perceptions about the city.
“It takes time to change,” he says. “But we don’t have to wait decades for the new Pahokee. No matter how small the decision is that changes something, that’s progress. Let’s move beyond the negative.”
To view the video Progress Pahokee: Promo, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClDqU-dlyzA&feature=youtu.be. To view the video Progress Pahokee: State of the City, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S07yQrgeBE.