by James Coulter
Providing more homes. Planting more trees. Restoring the historic downtown hotel. These topics and many more were discussed during the city commission candidate forum hosted at the Lake Wales History Museum on Tuesday evening.
Three candidates for city commissioner seats three and five appeared at the forum to discuss pertinent topics related to historical preservation, cultural resources, and economic development.
The participating candidates were Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson, who is running for Seat 5, and Michelle Threatt and Keith Thompson, who are running for Seat 3. Danielle Pride Gibson, who is running for Seat 5, was absent that evening.
The forum was sponsored and hosted by the Lake Wales History Museum, moderated by Brandon Alvardo, and the sound equipment was provided by Robert Foss. Several dozen attendees attended the forum that evening.
Each participating candidate offered opening and closing remarks, and each took turns answering a series of questions about select topics concerning the city.
Gibson considers himself “crazy” for historic development. He has personally overseen the historic restoration of four buildings, and he is currently overseeing his fifth building restoration.
So when asked if he would support city-funded incentives to restore historic buildings, he considered it the “easiest and most obvious question” with the most obvious answer: “of course.”
Even then, he remains fiscally conservative about such matters. He prefers not to spend money “willy nilly”; rather, he wants to ensure there is a value-to-value exchange where the city “gets more value in turn.”
Thompson considers himself converted towards appreciating his city’s history through Mimi Hardmann, the former museum director who had attended his church, where he served as associate pastor. Hearing how much of a heart she had for the city’s history made him appreciate local historic landmarks and buildings much more.
With historic restoration, Thompson feels the city can do more and should do more. He believes the best institution to accomplish that is the local government rather than the federal. He firmly believes “the strength of the city is its own ability to govern and regulate itself.”
When Threatt walked into the museum that evening, she felt ashamed. She had attended several events there, but she never had the opportunity to walk through the entire museum and see its exhibits.
She admires the museum’s dedication to preserving history. She admits that there are aspects of the city she does not know about, but she wants to do everything to learn more about them and appreciate them.
“I just am really [humbled] with disappointment in myself not knowing stuff in our reach,” she said. “So any resources I can be a part of to get children more involved and [to] build on our history, I am for it.”
Lake Wales Envisioned
Gibson considers the Lake Wales Envisioned Plan an opportunity that Lake Wales needed to take advantage of. It was not just a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. It was a “once in a greater lifetime”, as the life of a city exceeds that of any person.
He knows growth is coming to the city. It is inevitable. So any opportunity the city can take to develop and prepare itself for the coming growth is a “critical point.” “Envisioned gives us that opportunity,” he said. “We have it in our hands. and if we do not take advantage of that, shame on us.”
Thompson considers the community involvement with the Envisioned plan to be the biggest positive. Not only has the local community been committed to providing their feedback for their plans, but also worked together for a unified vision.
“Regardless of our ideology, we are all of one accord,” he said. “We do not want to see town morph into something we do not recognize or are proud of.”
The overall transparency of the project impressed her the most. Not only have the residents been open about expressing their opinions about their city, but the city itself has been open about accepting these opinions.
She wants to bring that same transparency to her role. She wants to hear what all residents think of the city’s decisions, and she wants them to know that, even if they do not agree with the final decision, they know how it was made.
Lake Wales History Museum
Each of the three candidates was asked if they supported the current litigation surrounding the hotel and the city’s attempt to gain ownership of it. They all unanimously answered that they did. Thompson answered, “yes, and yes.” Gibson answered, “yes, and hell yes.” Threatt answered, “yes” and asked if the hotel can include an ice cream shop.
As to what they would do to rehabilitate the hotel, Gibson replied by explaining his three-step process. One step was the current litigation underway. The second step was to create a trust fund to renovate the building, a “mechanism” that he claimed was being implemented in the Care Center as a “guinea pig.” And the third step was to have private owners build on its historic value.
Thompson said that the city would have to gain ownership first and see how the CRA would operate. The key, he said, is making sure the CRA is capitalized in the right way, and that the financing is “legit and solid.” The last he wants is “the sore thumb of the hotel sticking up without a plan.”
Threatt, on the other hand, suggested that some of the rooms inside the hotel could be utilized as apartments, especially to provide affordable housing. She recently counted on seeing eight homeless people, and the projected growth for the city and county has her concerned there is not enough affordable housing for people. She thinks the hotel can potentially help alleviate that.
About the Candidates
Several decades ago, Robin Gibson was motivated to do the “nuttiest thing I have ever done”, which is run for a political position. He was motivated to do so with the decline of the Lake Wales Community Redevelopment Agency, which he claimed was being “abused and mistreated” with “zero” being redeveloped.
Gibson decided to run and do something about the situation. Through his involvement, both on the local and state level, the Lake Wales CRA made an epic turnaround and helped spur local economic development.
Recently, the biggest feather in his cap is the $18.5 million Lake Wales Connected, a revitalization plan dedicated to uniting both the Lake Wales Downtown and Northwest District under a unified, more beautified vision.
Thompson has lived in Lake Wales for 55 years. He has grown a family there with a loving wife, a child, and two grandchildren. He works for the biggest wooden pellet company in the state.
However, having lived and worked in Lake Wales for as long as he has, he never imagined that he would one day run for a political position, and yet he determined that running for city commissioner was not only a possibility but a duty.
He loves his community and appreciates everything it has provided him: a loving family, a well-paying job, and an overall affluent lifestyle. For that reason, he wants to make the community a better place so that everyone can enjoy that same life.
“I never imagined myself in this position. This is not something I thought I would be doing,” he said. “As you age and get older, if you do not step up and help your city, then there is not a lot of substance to you at this point.”
During her closing remarks, Threatt owed her motivation for following her current life path and running for political office to the most curious choice: Bradley Norris, a now-deceased convict who had assaulted her outside Lake Wales Hospital in 2010.
“His plan was to bash my brains in,” she said. “That was the best worst day of my life because it pushed me to this place.”
Since that fateful day, she decided to turn her life around and make something of herself. A retired communication officer from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, she is now the proud owner of Topsy’s Food Truck.
She is also the President of the Northwest Association and a Lake Wales housing board commissioner. Having served her city as an entrepreneur and civil servant, she wants to continue serving it in political office.
“If you want change, change; and that change starts with you,” she said. “I wanted change, so I started with me, and that is why I am sitting before you.”