Kingsley Guy: After four decades, a fond farewell

I headed south from Cleveland in 1976 for a job at a small daily newspaper called the Sun Sentinel. I planned to work there for a couple of years building my journalistic resume before seeking a position on a big-city publication.

I soon realized, however, that Greater Fort Lauderdale was turning into a major metropolitan area and that the Sun Sentinel was destined to develop into one of the largest and most vibrant newspapers in the Southeast.

So I stuck around. The two years I planned to work for the Sun Sentinel turned into 30, with the final 23 spent as the editorial page editor. I retired in 2006, but for the last eight years have been privileged to write freelance columns for the Opinion page.

Joining the Sun Sentinel was the smartest move I ever made, or the luckiest. I've been associated for 38 years with an organization staffed by dedicated professionals who have helped make South Florida a better place to live and work. This, however, will be my final column. It's time to embark on other endeavors lest I become complacent. (I can name a number of politicians I wish operated with a similar mindset.) Before I sign off, however, please indulge me in some final musings.

When I rolled into Fort Lauderdale 38 years ago, there was but one tall building in the downtown — the white one near Broward Boulevard and Third Avenue that's still home to the Tower Club. Fort Lauderdale had its own symphony orchestra, which held concerts in Holiday Park's acoustically challenged War Memorial Auditorium, known colloquially as "The Quonset Hut." The city had an art museum housed in a couple of storefronts on Las Olas Boulevard, the sidewalks of which rolled up at 5 p.m.

What is now the Broward County Governmental Center was a Burdines Department Store. Across the street, people could play tennis on the site where the main library now stands. The airport, with an open-air baggage claim, looked like it belonged in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. The beachfront consisted largely of mom-and-pop hotels and a plethora of T-shirt shops, making it the ideal destination for drunken college students on Spring Break.

There wasn't much to brag about other than the winter weather and my first year here, even that was suspect; it snowed for the first and only time in history. But the community had a "can-do" spirit and some competent and aggressive business, civic and political leaders intent on turning Greater Fort Lauderdale into something special.

A turning point came in 1986. New airport terminals opened for business, giving the community one of the most modern and convenient airports in the country, along with a much-needed boost to civic pride. That same year saw the construction on Las Olas of a new Museum of Art building, a structural gem designed by the renowned architect Edward Larrabee Barnes.

Also in 1986, Fort Lauderdale voters passed a package of bond issues that provided funds for beachfront renovation, the Arts & Science District, Riverwalk and other projects. A solid foundation for development had been put in place, and subsequent years saw the rise of the downtown skyline, an influx of residents into the center city, a revival of Las Olas and an upscale transformation of much of the beach.

It looked as though nothing could stop Fort Lauderdale until the arrival in 2005 of Hurricane Wilma, followed by the bursting of the housing bubble and the onslaught of the Great Recession. For a time, the community even lost population.

Yet, Greater Fort Lauderdale has shown impressive resilience. The unemployment rate has dropped to well below the national average.The Center for the Performing Arts has expanded its footprint and the Museum of Art is gaining international attention. The second major airport runway should open by the end of the year. Port Everglades is showing progress on its expansion plans. Residential construction in and around downtown is leading the way for population growth that should turn Fort Lauderdale into a 24-hour city.

Take it from somebody who has written about the community for nearly four decades and seen its ups and downs: Fort Lauderdale has had a great run, and the best is yet to come.

Kingsley Guy is the author of the novel Queen of the Heavens. You can visit his website at http://www.kingsleyguy.com.

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