April 21, 2013
As Mark Twain noted, history doesn't repeat itself, but "sometimes it rhymes," and South Florida may be in for one of those rhyming moments as it emerges from the economic doldrums of the past half decade.
Turn the clock back a hundred years: Henry Flagler had just completed the Key West link of the Florida East Coast Railway, which opened the entire Atlantic Coast to tourism, business and agriculture. By the 1920s, South Florida was booming, in large part because of the railroad.
As she is wont to do, however, Mother Nature crashed the party. The devastating "Great Miami" hurricane of 1926 and "Okeechobee" hurricane of 1928 demonstrated the vulnerability of South Florida to natural disasters. The region entered an economic slide as new construction began to dry up.
The 1929 stock market crash and resultant Great Depression dealt another crushing blow to the region, and in 1935, the "Labor Day" hurricane delivered the coup de grace. Still considered the most powerful ever to strike the United States, the hurricane swept through the Florida Keys, destroying parts of the railroad so vital to the prosperity of the Keys, and all of Florida
History began to rhyme after World II.
The war brought South Florida and the rest of the nation out of the Depression. Airplanes and automobiles, rather than railroads, now brought vast numbers of people to the region, as air conditioning allowed for comfort throughout the year. The post-war development boom mirrored, though on a much grander scale, that of the 1920s.
But, hurricanes struck once more. In 2004-05, eight impacted Florida. Insurance costs soared, and many people began questioning the wisdom of living in Florida.
A few years later, real estate values plummeted, as did stocks as the nation entered the Great Recession. With construction at a standstill, South Florida suffered more than most regions of the country.
But, the rhyme continues.
Construction is recovering, as is the value of real estate. The jobs picture in South Florida has improved substantially. In Palm Beach County, the unemployment rate has dropped from double digits to 7.4 percent. In Broward, it's down to 6.2 percent, well below the national average of 7.6 percent.
It's not yet time to sing "Happy Days are Here Again," but neither should anyone be humming, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime."
South Florida still faces many challenges, but residents have a right to feel optimistic about the future. Such optimism was effusive during the Broward Workshop's Fifth Annual State of Our County presentation.
Gov. Rick Scott pointed to gains in employment throughout Florida, and especially in Broward, which has been a state leader in job creation. Broward School Superintendent Robert Runcie and Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett pointed to improvements in education. Broward Mayor Kristen Jacobs noted the county has held the line on the millage rate and maintained a sterling bond rating.
The speeches weren't just political hype. The job market and education have improved. The Florida East Coast Railway tracks may someday be used for a commuter rail system that links the downtowns of cities along the tri-county right-of-way. The expansion of I-595 eventually will ease Broward's east-west traffic flow. At the airport, construction of a major, parallel east-west runway is well underway, and progress is being made on expanding Port Everglades so it can accommodate huge new vessels that will be passing through a widened Panama Canal.
Broward, at the geographic center of South Florida, is poised for an exciting new era. Among the things that can hold it back, however, are political ineptitude and a lack of leadership. Airport runway and port expansion were no-brainers, yet for years, political dithering held back progress on these vital projects.
With a population of 1.8 million, Broward has a million more residents than San Francisco. The county needs real leadership, with a single focal point where the buck stops. The time for a charter change establishing a strong, elected county executive has arrived.
Kingsley Guy's column appears every other Sunday. Email him at Harborlite3@bellsouth.net.
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