City Watch: 2020 in Review in Boca Raton & Delray Beach

As usual, with the last post of the year I will look back on the big stories from 2020 in Boca Raton and Delray Beach and ahead to 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic.

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Was there any other story after mid-March? That’s when Boca Raton and Delray Beach issued their first emergency orders and began closing city facilities. On March 24, Boca Raton ordered the closing of non-essential businesses.

Since then, both cities have adapted and adjusted, caught at times in the middle of virus politics. In May, Palm Beach County reopened too early after the first wave of cases, which helped to create the second, larger wave in mid-summer. In late September, Gov. DeSantis prohibited cities and counties from enforcing mask mandates, which has helped to create the third wave of cases.

Local governments, though, provide essential services that must continue, despite political ineptitude higher up. Public safety is obvious. So are water, sewer and stormwater. Others directly affect the economy.

Outdoor construction has proceeded during the pandemic, so cities had to keep processing permits. Inspections couldn’t stop.

Chrissy Gibson is Boca Raton’s director of communications and marketing. For employees who can’t work from home, Gibson said, the city has tried “lots of different shifts” to reduce the chance of viral spread. Two examples are the Utilities Department, whose staff members must be at the city plant, and the City Clerk. Running virtual meetings takes more staff time.

Though there have been “outbreaks” in the police and fire departments and various quarantines, especially as cases increased recently, Gibson believes that “services have not been (adversely) affected.”

Some construction projects have been delayed, she said, because of COVID-19 issues with contractors. Despite the restrictions, Gibson said, the city pulled off a multi-department technology upgrade to create new billing systems and “increase efficiency big-time.”

As happens after a hurricane, cities have incurred emergency expenses — overtime, protective equipment and the cost of extra sanitization of vehicles. Boca Raton will apply for federal reimbursement. The city also has been the conduit for money going out, distributing nearly $550,000 in federal money for rental and mortgage assistance. Cities must spend that money by Dec. 31.

In Delray Beach, Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez said at a recent city commission meeting, “Our numbers are up,” referring to cases among city employees. Combined with turnover, Alvarez said, “Department after department can’t get to” priority issues. She acknowledged that some work had slowed.

According to a city spokeswoman, about 55 Delray Beach employees have tested positive since March 30. There have been roughly 500 quarantines across all departments.

Each quarantine has caused “a ripple effect,” the spokeswoman said. She added, “The fact that we have been able to keep the infection rate low tells us that we have been effective in responding quickly.” Residents can help by using online services as often as possible.

Gibson said City Manager Leif Ahnell’s message from the start was: “This is not a joke. People have kept up with that.” Outside city halls—especially in some places on East Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach—the attitude is much different, as maskless people party on. Meanwhile, the essential workers have kept working.

Now to the mostly non-virus stories.

Gretsas came and went.

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Delray Beach’s latest supposedly permanent city manager turned out to be temporary after starting in early January.

The city commission didn’t officially fire Gretsas until November. He was as good as gone, however, in late June, when Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson voted to suspend him with the intent of terminating him.

Few cities would consider canning a qualified manager during a pandemic. Under Petrolia, however, Delray Beach is setting new lows in political dysfunction.

A seemingly simple discussion about trimming sea grape trees on the beach turned into a shoutfest, with Petrolia voting revenge on commissioners who had not voted with her. A workshop on social media policy devolved into similar recriminations

Gretsas’ attorney offered ample evidence that there was no legitimate cause to fire him. The city can expect another lawsuit from a former employee.

What’s in the water?

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Petrolia and Co. also fired Gretsas as he was digging into Delray Beach’s water problems. Those include cross-contamination from the reclaimed–partially treated–water system and the level of cancer-causing chemicals.

Because of the latter issue, the state ordered Delray Beach to test its water for a year. The Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General is investigating the water department. That probe will focus on, among other things, the $4.1 million contract to expand the reclaimed water system. Utilities Director Hassan Hajidmiry, whom Gretsas brought in, might the busiest man in the city next year.

Big year at the Boca Resort.

In September, the new owners announced a $150 million investment that will begin the makeover of the nearly century-old resort. Just after that, they announced the donation of the golf course at the resort-owned Boca Country Club to the city.

That course will replace Boca Raton Municipal, which the city intends to sell to GL Homes. The donation thus resolved the standoff between the city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District over a new course on the former Ocean Breeze layout at Boca Teeca. That property now will go for other recreational uses.

As the owners made clear, they are thinking past the pandemic with their investment. For now, though, the pandemic rules. Last week, the resort notified the state that, effective Feb. 6, it would lay off nearly 1,000 employees at the resort and Boca Country Club who had remained on furlough in hopes of being rehired. “Demand,” the notice said, “remains devastated.”

But the economic news wasn’t all bad.

Even amid the pandemic, Delray Beach drew a pair of corporate headquarters to the downtown 4th and 5th building that also is home to the iPic theater. The city continued to approve residential projects, and progress continues on the massive Parks at Delray, where Office Depot had its headquarters before moving to Boca Raton.

An arts complex in Mizner Park?

The Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corporation (BRADEC) presented to the city council a plan for a roughly $100 million project next to the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Backers want a lot from the city: the vacant property next to the amphitheater and management of the amphitheater, which BRADEC would combine with a futuristic new building. A proposed ground lease could come to the council early in 2021.

Thirty-year wait ends.

In the late 1980s, Boca Raton promised residents a large park on what had been the city’s landfill along Southwest 18th Street next to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. The promise got moldy with age.

Soccer and baseball fields finally opened on the north side, but the south remained vacant. Until this year.

Just before the pandemic lockdown, El Rio Hillsboro South opened on those nine acres. The county-ordered closing of parks and playgrounds kept people away for a while, but most activity has resumed. Between the park and the opening next year of the new Addison Mizner Elementary School, Realtors who work the Palm Beach Farms, Boca Square and Camino Lakes neighborhoods anticipate an even better market.

Book closes on Josephine’s.

In January came sentencing for the last of three men who participated in the 2013 robbery that led to one of Boca Raton’s most high-profile murders.

Quinton Redell Sylvestre pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the killing of bartender Rafael Rodriguez at the popular restaurant on North Federal Highway. He did not fire the shots. The men who did got life in prison last year after a jury convicted him.

Notable passings

In 2020, we lost John Shuff, who founded and ran Boca Raton magazine for four decades. We also lost Charlie Siemon, who basically birthed Mizner Park–getting help from John Shuff and others–and co-founded Festival of the Arts.

And this month came the passing of Lynn Laurenti. She spent 25 years at Florida Atlantic University, rising to vice president of communications.

To their families and all those who have lost loved ones–to the pandemic or other causes–we express our condolences and our wish for a better 2021.

Looking ahead to 2021

So what should we watch for next year?

Elections, especially those in Delray Beach.

Petrolia is on the ballot with Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel. The mayor is campaigning against them as she campaigns against her own opponent, Tracy Caruso.

If Caruso, Boylston and Frankel win, they likely will help to choose the next manager and could push more sweeping changes. If Petrolia and her slate win, she will have as much control over the commission-manager form of government as a weak mayor can have.

The stakes are lower in Boca Raton. Two of five seats are up. But Mayor Scott Singer and council members Monica Mayotte—who’s on the ballot—and Andrea O’Rourke put their hands on the scale by choosing Yvette Drucker to fill the vacant Seat C. Drucker had filed to run against former council member Constance Scott.

With no elections scheduled in 2022, however, this council could be the one that chooses a successor to Ahnell, who has been Boca Raton’s city manager since 1999. Ahnell hits mandatory retirement in 2022. If the council holds a strategic planning session in the spring, expect succession planning to come up.

Brightline. Will the company break ground on its Boca Raton station in time to finish before 2022? When will Brightline resume service?

Big projects. Will Boca Raton approve the arts center deal? What will Delray Beach Market bring to the city? What will happen with Sundy Village in Delray Beach? Will Camino Square in Boca Raton start construction?

The retail economy. Landmarks such as Town Center Mall and Mizner Park are reinventing themselves as the pandemic further burdens brick-and-mortar companies. Property owners in Boca Raton and Delray Beach are looking to repurpose retail sites for residential.

What happens in 2021 will depend largely on how soon a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available and how many people take it.

On Monday, Baptist Health South Florida—parent company of Boca Raton Regional Hospital—received its first shipment of the Moderna vaccine. A Boca Regional spokesman said the company is “finalizing plans” to vaccinate medical staff.

With the vaccine–and continued social distancing until we reach herd immunity—perhaps next year will look more like the old normal and less like the new normal. We already have lost too many lives and businesses. May the pandemic be more in the rear view mirror a year from now.