Getting the Heart Pumping: A blighted city’s showbiz comeback
Nancy M. Graham
Mayor, West Palm Beach, Florida
With the clock ticking toward midnight on New Year's Eve of 1993, a group of people in West Palm Beach, Florida, huddled around a detonator, getting ready to set off explosives that would blow up the waterfront Holiday Inn.
This was not a plot concocted by dangerous subversives. This was the West Palm Beach mayor's idea of civic advancement.
The old hotel had to be razed to make way for a new bandshell at the waterfront site. Mayor Nancy M. Graham sold $25 tickets to a "mayor's danger zone" for the midnight implosion. The pyrotechnics took on a festive air, and when the dust cleared, the city celebrated too: Ticket revenue and donations added up to almost $1 million, nearly covering the price of the bandshell, at a time when the city was facing a $9.5 million budget deficit.
Most of Graham's plans for her city have been about building it up, not blowing it up. Outsiders often confuse West Palm Beach with Palm Beach, the glitzy island Shangri-La to the east. But West Palm, just across the Intercoastal Waterway from that millionaires' playground, is a world away. "People always ask me," Graham says, "what it's like to be the mayor of paradise." What they don't realize is that West Palm Beach has a minority population of nearly 50 percent, including a large, impoverished immigrant population from Haiti and Guatemala. Its downtown had become blighted, with prostitutes roaming the streets. Crack houses had cropped up in poorer areas, businesses had shut down or left town, and once-nice middle-class neighborhoods had become dilapidated. Over a four-year period from the late 1980s to the early '90s, property tax revenues had dropped by 60 percent.
"We had to get the heart pumping," Graham says. After she was elected in 1991, she focused on a redevelopment strategy that would bring arts and entertainment to the downtown. The city now has a new plaza and fountain, an amphitheater and a multicultural center. The city also started "Clematis By Night," a weekly event named for the city's main street. Most every Thursday of the year, the area around the new downtown plaza is filled with bands, artists and food. Depending on the weather, the outdoor festival draws an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people each week.
In 1996, the city bought 75 acres of land that had been cleared for a failed development project in the '80s; the city formed a partnership with a developer who in May broke ground on CityPlace, a $450 million, 2 million-square-foot mixed-use project that many expect will recreate street retailing in West Palm Beach.
At the same time Graham has been working on redevelopment, she also has been dealing with serious budget problems that had long plagued the working-class city. She trimmed 150 employees, or about 15 percent of the workforce, from the payroll, and set up a competitive contracting process. With the aid of a booming stock market, the city was able to close an overfunded pension plan and reap a $30 million windfall; a new pension plan has been created and is fully funded.
Graham, now 52, came in as the first mayor elected after a charter change created a strong-mayor form of government. Not surprisingly, there has been grumbling from some city commissioners about not always being included in decisions. Graham believes the criticism arises from the shift in the balance of power and the natural tensions between the executive and legislative branches.
A newspaper editorial commented that she has overreached at times. She brushes off the criticism. "If I didn't push real hard, it wouldn't happen sometimes," she responds. "We would have stayed stuck."
— Ellen Perlman
Photo by Tony Arruza