PALMETTO - In a city that rode the boom and now is sliding through the bust, its mayor said she sees brighter days ahead.
|Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant won a bruising election campaign last year to win the office, and has had to deal with a shrinking budget, troubles in the city's CRA and rebuilding the business base of the community.|
But there are some jarring reminders of past confidence, and maybe overconfidence.
As you drive on U.S. 301, past the Manatee Convention Center on the left and a city park on the right, you can't miss the tattered-looking billboard that announces, "Palmetto is booming: 650 new businesses."
Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said it's a remnant of the past administration and that there may be an opportunity to do something about it.
"It's not a time to put something like that that's up there, much less let it be tattered," she said in a recent interview in her City Hall office.
There's plenty of other work to be done, though, like getting a balanced budget passed, getting a school and new ballfields built and dealing with the ins and outs of small-city politics.
Bryant was a member of what was then the Palmetto City Council, and an unsuccessful candidate for the County Commission. Her job as the finance director for the Manatee School for the Arts was fulfilling, she said, but people kept asking her last year if she'd run for mayor.
"When it was coming time for the election again, I had so many people who kept asking me, would I run, would I run. I kept trying to make my decision about it, and every time I would decide, it would take a lot of my energy and my time. I liked what I was doing at the School for the Arts," she said.
"Every time I'd make that decision, I'd run into people and they'd say, 'You have to run.'
"So the final thing was, I have a thing for Diet Coke and I'd stop at the little store, and one of the local businessmen was on his cell phone and I'd seen him around town and we'd chat. "He said, 'I've got to go' and he closes his cell phone and says, ' Shirley, I implore you to run for mayor.'
"And I just decided then I was just probably supposed to do that."
Winning, then governing
It was a three-way race for the mayor's office, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Bryant was running against then-Public Works director Chris Lukowiak and then-City Commissioner Eric Ball.
Larry Bustle, the former mayor, had run for and won election to a seat on the County Commission.
It had been a heated campaign, the Herald-Tribune reported, with Bryant running ads that quoted a police report about a domestic disturbance complaint at Lukowiak's house and issues raised about whether Lukowiak lived inside the city limits. Lukowiak won that battle in court and was on the Nov. 4 ballot.
With the election over and won - though Lukowiak and his wife Tanya would soon figure in more city controversy -- Bryant had to take charge.
"I thought it would be a big task because I'd heard so many complaints from the community about different things that they felt they wanted to see improved," she said of taking the reins as mayor. "I kind of felt that it would be a big task and I did feel like I had good people that I was going to be working with on the city as far as the staff, and I knew most of the commissioners, and I felt that they would be supportive in trying to make improvements, which they have been.
"I'm very, very fortunate, in that sense."
Still, she was uncomfortable with some of the things she found.
"We had smoking in three of our public buildings, which is a state law, and I was shocked at that. We had destruction of carpet in public buildings by smoking," she said. "Stuff like that is just so basic, because that's tax dollars and you're risking the health and well-being of the employees in these facilities. So stuff like that were a given.
"Also, I just wanted to make sure that everybody was treated the same and got the same services, and really to protect the tax dollars and make sure the citizens were getting what they were paying for."
'Beautiful, historic Palmetto'
As someone who touted her deep roots in Palmetto in her mayoral campaign, Bryant said her goal is to preserve the city and get it back on the growth path.
|A billboard on U.S. 301 just before the bridge to Bradenton is a product of the previous administration, Bryant said.|
"Both of my sons live here, my son and his wife live here and my other son lives here," she said. "I have great-nephews and -nieces and nieces and friends from my whole life, and I want it to be nice for them. I want to protect and make things as nice and safe as I possibly can for the residents and the businesses."
Safety has been a big issue, and Bryant recalls riding with the police shortly after being elected and learning of a murder in the city. A security camera would have caught the slaying, she said, but it didn't go around far enough. She thought, if there were more cameras on more businesses, the police might have solved the crime.
She's trying to work with the Community Redevelopment Agency through the grant process to raise money for cameras, she said.
As for whether Palmetto could ever be like cities like Sarasota and Bradenton that claim to offer a downtown with nightlife, Bryant said she'd just like to help the city move forward.
"We're trying to grow that further up. One of the things we're doing right now is we have some properties that the CRA had bought in the past and to date nothing's been done with them," she said. "And so we've had so many inquiries from different members of the public that they have ideas that they want to do with them. We advertise everything is 'beautiful, historic Palmetto.' And yet we've taken a lot of that history away from the historical area. So one of my things is, naturally, to go ahead and try to sell those properties back to these people that are inquiring about them. Hopefully, we get some good proposal and one of my things is that I want it to fit into the type of when we say 'beautiful, historic Palmetto.'
"And try to grow that on up and have more of a walking district. That's been a goal for some time, but I want it in action."
Making the dollars add up
The challenge of the city's budget caused some recent layoffs in the city government, something that governments at all levels in Florida have had to deal with.
Bryant said making those cuts is never easy, and she said she left the specifics to the department heads in the city agencies because she felt they were the best-qualified to decide.
"Last year, the previous administration had gotten a budget approved that was approved with a deficit in the Building Department using up reserves in excess of $400,000, and you can't continue that sort of thing. That's a glaring situation that you can't let that continue because you can't continue to use up your reserves," she said. "It wasn't anything to do with the employees and it wasn't any fault of theirs, but it was a case of there wasn't work."
"It hurts you to have to do that," she said of the resulting layoffs, "but nor can you have funds go out and the taxpayers not get something for them. So though it's tough and it hurt each one of us to have to go through that process, I did have to depend on the department heads.
"I don't try to go into their areas and make those evaluations, I have to rely on them. Otherwise, I wouldn't have asked them to serve as the department heads. I have to trust their input and their efforts and knowledge of their departments. Like the Building Department; that was pretty much a cut-and-dried situation because it was dictated, basically."
The battle of the CRA
The news that the City Commission was going to become the board of the Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency reverberated though the community and has had consequences for several people, including the CRA's former executive director, Tanya Lukowiak. One result of a performance audit of the CRA included a recommendation that Tanya Lukowiak, the wife of the former Public Works director, be let go with a settlement. She had been suspended.
That motion passed the City Commission, and Jeff Burton is now the acting executive director of the agency and working on figuring out the borders of the CRA and getting the agency back on track.
But in the meantime, City Commission meetings, which include the CRA meetings, are running late into the night. At the last meeting, the City Commission meeting was adjourned twice, first to go to a CRA meeting from weeks earlier that had been stopped, and then a second time for the next CRA meeting.
Two city commissioners had been absent at the start, and Bryant had to leave for an event, leaving three commissioners on the dais as the clock neared 10:30 p.m.
But Bryant said the work that needs to be done on the CRA takes time.
"I think anytime you have the type of transition that we've had, it's going to be time-consuming initially," she said. "But there's a reason that Manatee County has a CRA advisory board, and they act as the CRA board, the county commissioners do, there's a reason for that.
"When large sums of money are being spent, they need to be on the front lines approving those. There is a gap of trust now, and as that redevelops, then my goal is that those recommendations will come to the city commissioners, they'll review those recommendations, and they'll have a level of confidence and trust that these have been evolved appropriately by data-driven information and I think it will totally change."
A failure to communicate
Keeping the lines open is one of Bryant's challenges, and may be the reason the situation with the CRA went on for so long.
"One of the big problems I've found in Palmetto is the lack of a communication base," she said.
For example, the city was misinformed about its eligibility for Community Development Block Grants, Bryant said, and didn't try for any for five years.
"I was always told, and the commissioners were told, I understand, that we couldn't get any because the county was the entitlement agency," she said. "Well, we have some people that came and met with us and they said, 'Certainly you could get the CDBG funds. That you can apply for part of the county's because they are the entitlement agency but you have every right to apply for them as a city because of your demographics and population and so forth, you would likely prevail.'"
Another aspect of communication goes toward talk of disincorporating. Some cities in Florida have given up certain functions to their counties, including police, fire and community services. About 10 years ago, there was talk of disincorporating Palmetto, but Bryant said it ended.
"Our residents at the time were just absolutely adamant that they have their own municipality, they have their own police department," she said. "I talked to Sheriff Wells and he said he didn't have any interest in patrolling the city of Palmetto because his plate was already so full and was satisfied for us to maintain our police department.
"We have problems that are specific to Palmetto, and if we lost all our representation that was specific to here, I think we lose a lot of the ability to deal with our specific issues.
"I firmly believe the closer you are to the people you represent, the better representation those people have. Because you can't get away from them in the grocery store or church or at the dry cleaners or at the pharmacy. They have input and they have access to you all the time, so you are more responsive, the closer you are to them."
People, she said, wouldn't feel that connection and closeness if the whole government was across the river in Bradenton.
In her dealings with the city officials and the commission, Bryant said she tries to keep information flowing.
"We discuss so much in our department head meetings, it's really eye-opening to me because I don't feel that that level of communication was going on in the past," she said. "That's what I think has been missing between not just the department heads and the commissioners, but I think the commissioners have been left out of so much in the past and I'm trying to bring them in to having more and more communication. When I get something on my desk that I think might be helpful to them in their decisions, I have it scanned and sent to each one of them. If there's an article in the paper referencing something about the city, I have it scanned, and it goes to each one of them.
"I want them to know what's going on. When I go to a meeting like MPO or Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, I bring the information back and I put it in their bin so if they want to know what's going on at a different level, they have every opportunity to review that information. I offer up any of the boards that they'd like to sit on externally. If they'd like to go to those, I want them involved."
From billboard to reality
Getting business back into gear in Palmetto is one of Bryant's passions, and she's worked to get a business advisory group going so businesses can help each other, while the CRA helps improve storefronts and other amenities.
"One of the things I've been really focusing on is that we have vacant storefronts. And so I've had our staff develop a list of those and I suggested a business advisory group, and the people are meeting and I asked one of the young ladies who was in a new business in town, Susan Anderson, if she would kind of head it up. I didn't want it to be part of the city, I wanted it to be their deal, not associated with a mayor because I wanted it to survive when I'm not mayor," she said.
The group is for business owners to network, and they've been alternating the meetings' sites.
"My intention with it is for them to get to know their neighbors and fellow business owners and to naturally support each other and try to work together through the difficult times especially, but it's been interesting."
Help from the county, and more
One sign of the future is the construction of the new Palmetto Elementary School, though some ballfields had to be bumped, and that has caused some upset in the community.
"Now we're dealing with replacing the ballfields on 23rd Street and realigning 23rd Street," she said. "It's such a mixed bag on that because if we don't move 23rd Street, we can't have the ballfields in the complex. And a lot people think, 'Why don't you just build them on the fields there,' because if we did you're going to displace the soccer teams, which those fields are heavily used."
The county feels a sense of obligation to help with the fields, and they've been great to work with, Bryant said. Also, Manatee Fruit Company owner Whiting Preston, who owns the land for the ballfields, has been a great help.
Actually, Bryant admitted, she wasn't a fan of the new school's location, but decided it was best for the children to let the school project move forward.
"It was something I inherited. If I had tried to back up on that, it would have taken longer to get those kids and those teachers and those staff out of that school, and I wasn't willing to do that," she said. "The former administration and the commissioners - several of them are still there - had made that commitment to do that and so I wanted to go ahead and get it done, so I reached out to the School Board and the county, and we had joint meetings."
Sometimes city officials find dealing with a county to be a challenge, but Bryant said she hasn't felt that.
"I know there's been that feeling in the past, but I can't say that since I've been mayor that I've experienced that. Because the School Board has worked with us very well, we've had joint meetings. When I was first elected, Palmetto Elementary School was a critical thing for me because they had such health issues there," she said. "I haven't experienced that with them, those issues. Whenever I've reached out to the different ones, they've been very responsive to me."
And she's been working with the staff and principal at Palmetto High School to improve the community. The principal there was a professional athlete.
"He's going to be a great role model. I think he'll make a big difference there with the kids," she said.
"I've also met with Palmetto High School and their staff. There are coaches at Palmetto High School that asked to come and meet with me. What they're doing - and I'm very supportive of it - is working with the athletes to work on their character and help them improve their FCAT scores, and to work with some of the children that need help and need more guidance," Bryant said.
Right now, the school doesn't have a good grade. "It benefits the whole community for our schools to be successful," she added.
Most political officials take one office and dream of the next one, and how to get there, but Bryant said she's not looking to make a move.
"I think this is what I want to do. I think this is what I was supposed to do," she said. "I think I've been preparing for this for a long time."
Still, others are not too thrilled to see Bryant as mayor, but she said that's something you have to deal with in public office. So long as people are going a good job, she doesn't care if they opposed her election, she said.
"I'm trying to run a different type of administration, being inclusive. A lot of people say, 'Oh, so-and-so didn't support you.' I don't care about that. There's a lot of people that didn't support me, obviously, that didn't vote for me, but there's a heck of a lot of people that did.
"I want the best thing for the city. That's my goal," Bryant said. "People are usually gracious, even if they disagree with me, because I try to treat them with respect, and in turn they've been pretty good about doing the same."
The future of Palmetto
The time was running out, and some more people were lining up outside Bryant's office to talk to the mayor.
She has a lot of hope for the city's future, and says the changes in the pipeline will help change the city for the better.
"We are going to be doing a lot of innovative things. We are going to be using our CRA funds to help both the business area and the residential area that drastically needs it," she said.
"The CDBG funds that I referenced, that's going to be used towards the revitalization of some of the infrastructure that we've been planning for Ward 1, that's well needed; we're making revisions to the Riverside Drive intersection; we're making modifications to 10th and 10th, 10th Street and 10th Avenue; 10th Street and 14th Avenue; Palmetto Elementary School is under construction; Boys and Girls Club is under construction; and we're going to be funding some projects in the CRA in some of the housing areas, again from data-driven information; and working with our business advisory group, we are working to take vacant storefront properties and put them back to active businesses."
Bryant said she's been talking up the benefits of Palmetto as a place to do business, and part of that is getting people into the stores. "We have initiatives to shop local, support local businesses. One of the things I've done is we've adopted a local preference ordinance," she said. "All things being equal, it will be our local vendors. Whenever I go speak anywhere, that's what I close with: 'Support Palmetto businesses, shop local, we're all part of the same community and we need to help each other.'
"We're working together. We're going to be stronger and better in 2010."