City Watch 2019 in Review, and Questions for 2020

This will be my last post of 2019. So let’s look back at the big stories from the past year in Boca Raton and Delray Beach and ahead to what could be big in 2020.


boca brightline

Brightline is coming

Few recent stories in Boca Raton have drawn more attention than the city’s successful attempt to get into the Brightline system. The company hopes to open the station by the end of 2020.

For perspective, the communications staff made Mayor Scott Singer and city council members available for a media briefing after the first council discussion of the station and after final approval of the agreement to lease 1.8 acres east of the Downtown Library. The last such briefing happened after former Mayor Susan Haynie’s arrest in April 2018 on public corruption charges.


george gretsas
George Gretsas

So is George Gretsas

Delray Beach hopes that he will be the long-term manager the city has lacked since the retirement of David Harden at the end of 2012. Since then, Delray Beach has had three permanent managers and two interim managers. Fire Chief Neal de Jesus did two stints as the temporary CEO.

Gretsas has been very successful as the manager in Homestead, south of Miami. He wanted the job so much that he was willing to hang in after the city commission first chose Tamarac City Manager Michael Cernech, only to have Mayor Shelly Petrolia blow up negotiations.

The job came open after the commission fired Mark Lauzier in March for allegedly violating city rules on hiring and salary.


dan alexander

Dan Alexander is going

Boca Raton’s police chief for 13 years abruptly left to become second in command at the Palm Beach County School District Police Department. Alexander declined to comment.

Crime has been dropping in the city and there were no reports of scandals like those that took down Alexander’s three predecessors. As he transitions toward retirement, City Manager Leif Ahnell will make one of his biggest decisions in a career that dates to 1999 when he chooses Alexander’s successor.


kiffin
Coach Lane Kiffin (Photo by Eduardo Schneider)

So is Lane Kiffin

Florida Atlantic University’s head football coach got out of Boca Raton what he had wanted: A 26-13 record that was his ticket back to the Southeastern Conference at the University of Mississippi.

FAU President John Kelly responded by trying to follow the same playbook he used with Kiffin. Kelly hired a coach with a name and a past: Willie Taggart. Florida State University fired Taggart, just as Alabama had run off Kiffin. It may be another marriage of convenience.


latson

Then there’s William Latson

He was principal at Spanish River High School until The Palm Beach Post reported emails between Latson and a parent in which Latson told her that he couldn’t declare that the Holocaust actually happened.

Not surprisingly, outrage followed, all the way to Washington. The Palm Beach County School Board fired Latson, though the stated reason was for lack of communication, not his comments. He has appealed.


The temporary school campus for students at Verde and Addison Mizner

But there’s good news for Boca Raton schools

The school board approved a new elementary school next to Don Estridge Middle on land the city donated. Rebuilds of Addison Mizner and Verde elementaries will add middle-school grades. Combined with other projects, Boca Raton will get nearly $100 million infusion of money over the next five years into the city’s public education system.


R.I.P. IPIC

The luxury theater chain filed for bankruptcy and emerged under different ownership than Founder Hamid Hashemi: the Retirement System of Alabama (RSA). And you thought that state only produced college football champions.

Hamid Hashemi (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

As of deadline for this post, RSA had not announced a CEO or any plans for the theaters in Boca Raton and Delray Beach. It does seem likely, however, that the planned move of company headquarters to Delray Beach won’t happen. The city had conditioned approval of the theater/office project on that move. Of course, the city made that deal with a different owner.

What killed IPIC? Analysts note that competitors – such as Cinemark in Boca Raton and Silverspot, coming soon to Uptown Boca west of the city – began offering the same reclining loungers and reserved seats for much less money. The company’s IPO in January also turned out to be a debacle, raising far less than anticipated.

Hashemi invested a lot of money in the Delray Beach project, including an impressive art gallery. But how many people want to look at art as they’re on the way to the latest episode of “Star Wars?”


(Rendering by BH3)

Finally, West Atlantic shines?

In April, the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency chose BH3 to develop the CRA-owned six acres next to the Fairfield Inn. The city believes that a successful mixed-use project will seed wider redevelopment in the northwest and southwest neighborhoods that, for the most part, have missed out on the resurgence of East Atlantic.

Progress was supposed to come much earlier. The CRA chose a developer in late 2013, but after three years the company couldn’t show financial soundness and the agency ended the purchase agreement.

Now the city commission basically is the CRA board, so there are no more excuses. BH3 faces a mid-January deadline to file its application with the city.


Photo by Aaron Bristol.

Changes at an icon

On July 1, the merger of Boca Raton Regional Hospital and Baptist Health South Florida become official. For the first time in its 52-year history, Boca Regional no longer was independent.

There’s a new CEO, Lincoln Mendez, and other long-time executives have departed. But Baptist Health has provided money toward what is now an even more ambitious master plan/makeover of the hospital’s oldest facilities and a second inpatient tower. Residents hope that the new Boca Regional will be bigger and newer but much like the old Boca Regional.


Boca Raton Resort & Club

Changes at another icon

In May, MSD Partners bought the Boca Raton Resort & Club. The investment company is a creation of Michael Dell, who founded Dell Computer, and is now buying high-end resorts.

The resort doesn’t talk much about finances. According to a report in Forbes, however, performance had been lagging under Waldorf-Astoria ownership compared to The Breakers in Palm Beach and PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens.

According to the Forbes report, the sale price was nearly $900 million and included not just the resort property and buildings but also the members-only Premier Club. It was the largest real estate deal in Palm Beach County history.


Camino Square

Filling the last piece of downtown Boca Raton?

The city council approved the Camino Square project for the abandoned Winn-Dixie shopping center just west of Camino Real and Dixie Highway.

For now, the project is just residential – 350 apartments that would face the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. The developer says retail will come later. The city conditioned approval on improvements to help unsnarl traffic at the notorious chokepoint south of the site.

Though it wouldn’t seem so, Camino Square would be on the southwest edge of the community development agency boundary and thus part of downtown. If the project is built, that will mean even fewer units remain toward the cap on downtown development.


Boca Raton gets competition

Uptown Boca soon will rise on Glades Road near U.S. 441. It will be a miniaturized version of the entertainment-residential-retail neighborhood Boca Raton might have had in Midtown.


neal de jesus
Neal de Jesus during his tenure as fire chief

Scandal is back in Delray Beach

In June, then-Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus forced out the top two administrators in the Neighborhood & Community Services Department. De Jesus said the state attorney’s office, the inspector general’s office and the commission on ethics were investigating “the department’s distribution of grant money to various organizations.”

In 2016, a city audit led to the arrest of three employees in the purchasing department. The current investigations are continuing. The employees de Jesus forced out have filed lawsuits in which they blame their departures on their former supervisor.


crime scene

Tragedy in the suburbs

In August, a contract deliveryman killed a 75-year-old Boca Raton woman who had been awaiting a washer and dryer from Best Buy. The murder of Evelyn Smith Udell, who lived near Spanish River High School, has prompted county and state legislation to require background checks for anyone who enters a home to deliver a product or perform a service.


gavel

Justice at Josephine’s

In September, a Palm Beach County jury convicted Samuel Walker for the 2013 killing of bartender Rafael Rodriguez at the popular Boca Raton restaurant. The murder happened a robbery went bad.

Walker got a life sentence. Two other men charged in the crime have not gone to trial.


The last straw in Delray Beach

The city commission approved a ban on single-use plastic straws. Boca Raton passed on a ban, opting instead for a voluntary program to reduce the use of such straws, which can be a major problem for sea turtles.

And to end on a high note, it was a record turtle-nesting season in Boca Raton and Delray Beach.


Among the early questions for 2020 are:

  • Will Gretsas finally stabilize Delray Beach City Hall and complete the many stalled projects?
  • Will the Brightline station open, and will residents of Library Commons file a lawsuit?
  • Will Delray Beach’s election change the makeup of the city commission? Will Boca Raton have an election, or will all three incumbents win without opposition?
  • Will the Boca Raton City Council and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District finally agree on a plan for the Boca National golf course?
  • Will Crocker Partners’ grand plan for the Boca Raton Innovation Center materialize?
  • Will BH3 start work on that key project for West Atlantic Avenue?
  • Will Susan Haynie go to trial on March 23? That’s the current date, but the trial once had been scheduled for October of this year. Haynie’s attorney continues to say that the former mayor won’t take a plea deal.

With 2020 an election year at all levels, the news will keep coming. Best of the holidays and best wishes for a wonderful new year.

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