City Should be Known More for Community Consensus than for Conflict

Consulting the citizenry and being guided by their collective judgment is time well spent. The Survey found that the people living in the community — whether in or out of the city limits — identify themselves as coming from “Lake Wales.” The community is located in a corner of the county, has been stable, has not been overrun by urban sprawl from elsewhere, and has retained its own separate identity.

There is a consensus within the community that its number one strength is its sense of community. This strength was characterized in the Survey in a number of different ways: “sense of community,” “community spirit,” “support for good causes,” “involvement,” “pride,” “tendency to pull together,” “friendly atmosphere,” “love of community,” “church and faith community,” “family oriented,” “tight knit,” “people care about each other,” “Mayberry mentality” “volunteers for youth sports” “philanthropy,” “strong professional community,” “leadership families,” “promising young leadership,” “volunteers for programs,” “support at community events,” among other such sentiments. However stated, the meaning comes out the same.

Proof of the number one strength: When the community arrives at a consensus for something that needs doing — it gets done. The Lake Wales Charter Schools are a recent example.

The City provides the only organized government in the area, so civic leadership for the benefit of the community as a whole falls to the City by default. Fully half, if not more than half, of the community’s talent, expertise and investment capital resides outside the City’s boundaries. The City can harness the strengths of the full community by: 1) appointing the full range of community talent to city boards and committees, and 2) facilitating city-based public service nonprofit corporations that relieve the city from attempting to perform some of its public service aspirations. These nonprofits embody expertise and capital from in and out of the City and bring benefit to the City that it would not be able to afford if it made the attempts on its own.

Handling Negativity. Everybody has an opinion as to how city government should be operated — it’s the nature of the beast. Finding consensus involves consideration of different views. The City Commission and the City’s administration should not fear or automatically react against dissent. Dissenters serve a valuable purpose and keep the city’s leadership honest. The British value what they term the “loyal opposition” as a way of improving the final product. The City should search the criticism for those parts of it that could strengthen the effort. As for those parts for which there can be no reconciliation, the leadership should clearly and respectfully convey the reasons for the negative response.

Establish a Clear Distinction Between Policy and Administration

The successful operation of the City calls for a clear understanding and compliance with the distinction between policy and administration.

Policy. The City Commission is responsible for civic leadership, basic policy, priority setting, future direction and the development of the City, and to provide the liaison between the general public and the City’s administration.

Administration. The day to day implementation of the policy laid down by the commission is the responsibility of the city’s administration. The administration should not enter into, and should be protected by the Mayor and commissioners from, city politics. Commissioners have no administrative authority.

Stabilize the Economic Decline of the Community’s Center


Statistical data has been compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau for the four zip code areas that make up the Lake Wales community. (See the online Polk County Zip Code Boundary Map).

The effects of the migration from the City to Country Oaks, Highland Park, Mountain Lake, Babson Park, Hillcrest Heights, Country Club, Crooked Lake, Lake of the Hills, and the like are reflected in the data. The average household income of the residents in the historic city center with the 33853 zip code has declined to 73% of the average household income of those living in the three zip code areas surrounding the city limits. The household incomes of Lake Wales city dwellers also did not stack up well against other comparable towns.

Zip Codes and Census Data


Zip Codes

# of Businesses


Average Home Value

Average Income per Household





$ 99,900



33830, 33831



$ 99,700


Haines City

33844, 33845



$ 95,400


Lake Wales, City






Lake Wales, W. of City




$ 95,400


Lake Wales, E. of City




$ 92,900


Babson Park, S. of City






River Ranch




$ 97,100








Winter Haven




$ 89,700


Winter Haven




$ 82,300


Winter Haven










$ 78,300


Reverse the Decline of Downtown. In the 1980s Lake Wales was recognized as a regional and national leader for downtown redevelopment. Today, the town has been passed up by Bartow, Auburndale, Winter Haven, Haines City and Lakeland, primarily because those towns have properly utilized their community redevelopment trust funds. In contrast, the Lake Wales trust funds from downtown have not been reinvested in downtown. Instead of redevelopment, they were lumped in with a greatly expanded CRA and used to purchase and construct Longleaf Park and also to pay off bonded indebtedness for city-wide capital improvement projects.

In fiscal year 2011-12, the tax increment raised from downtown property values was $82,322. The increment has steadily declined since then, to the point that in 2015-16, it was $55,142 — a loss of 33%. While downtown’s increment was experiencing loss, the City’s CRA increment generated from property values outside downtown went from $482,341 to $523,782, a gain of $41,441.

As the bonded indebtedness is retired, the CRA increment utilized to pay that indebtedness will be freed up to be properly expended to: 1) reverse the decline of the city’s center by redeveloping its historic built environment, and 2) bring about an increase in the tax increment available to further enhance downtown redevelopment.

Adopt What Has Worked for Getting Things Done in Spite of the City’s Limited Resources

The Lake Wales Way. The community’s most successful achievements have come from the City’s participation with community-wide non-profits utilizing the efforts, talent, expertise, and investment of persons in and out of the City. Examples, which have been termed “The Lake Wales Way,” include: Care Center, charter schools, Economic Development Council, YMCA, Little League, Soccer Club, civic clubs, Arts Council, YMCA, Unity in Community, and others. All are community-wide and volunteer driven. Lake Wales folks are accustomed to working together to get things done for the benefit of the community — which is probably why “Sense of Community” was identified in the Survey as the community’s number one community strength. If the City had attempted to undertake these public service endeavors with paid employees and confined the benefits to city residents, they would have never succeeded.

The City’s efforts to go it alone (examples: economic development, recreation) haven’t worked. The formula for success has proved to be:

  1. A community consensus emerges as to an important need to be addressed for the benefit of the community as a whole.
  2. The consensus either forms or utilizes an existing public service nonprofit corporation.
  3. The operation of the corporation is based within the City.
  4. The City provides the seed or a partial subsidy for the effort.

The public service nonprofit and its volunteers do the work for the benefit of the community as a whole.
Mutual Benefits. The arrangement is cost-effective for the City, which benefits from the talent and investment of the entire local economy while only contributing a part of what it would cost to finance the project on its own. The City’s contribution has been in different forms: a tax exemption, seed money, subsidy, or facility usage. (See Appendix B). The nonprofits bring private funds from member dues, admission fees (scholarships for the needy), sponsorship, and fundraising efforts. The City retains considerable control over the effort, since the withdrawal of its contribution would in most cases doom the project.)

Leadership. The most successful non-profits are those with outstanding leadership. The nonprofits’ boards of directors select and retain their leaders free of city politics. In most cases, the leadership comes from local citizens who are highly committed to the particular endeavor. The larger nonprofits (for example, Care Center, charter schools, Economic Development Council, YMCA) are led by full-time career professionals the city might not otherwise be able to attract or afford.

Adopt What Has Worked for Getting Things Done in Spite of the City’s Limited Resources

The City’s earlier effort to go it alone for economic development proved to be unproductive. Instead, the City allied itself with the Chamber of Commerce and became the latest example of what has been termed the “Lake Wales Way” for getting things done with limited resources for the benefit of the community. The City redirected the $100,000 it had been spending on its own effort and applied it as seed money toward the creation of the Lake Wales Economic Development Council under the auspices of the Greater Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit corporation. The EDC conducted a national search and selected its own leadership.

The City recognized the success of the venture by increasing its annual appropriation to the EDC to $125,000. The City has also contributed the time and effort of the Mayor and City Manager for the effort. Together with the Executive Director of the EDC, the three have been the front line for the community’s “business friendly” economic development initiative.

The Lake Wales approach to economic development is based on its competitive advantages presented by its quality of life. The community’s hills and lakes, natural, rural setting, good schools, three colleges, location at the intersection of U.S. 27 and State Road 60, Bok Tower, and cultural advantages are assets the citizens do not want to degrade.

Support Downtown Redevelopment as the City’s Second Highest Priority

A major distinction between the EDC’s economic development and downtown’s redevelopment is that the EDC’s appeal involves outreach beyond the community, while the downtown effort concentrates on investment from within the community. Community folks already identify with Lake Wales, are nostalgic about their downtown, are favorably inclined toward redevelopment, and are motivated — not only by the profit motive — but also for the resulting benefit to the community.

Redevelopment of the built environment and economic development complement and strengthen each other. Economic development prospects perceive downtown as symbolic of the strength of the community.

Of all the City’s needs, downtown is the easiest to remedy — because the community has done it before and knows what it takes. In 1973, the City’s Downtown Development Commission:
Completed Central Florida’s first comprehensive streetscape improvements. (The Mayor and DDC Chair were invited to Washington for a White House ceremony where they were presented with national recognition for the City’s downtown revitalization.)
Earned the “Main Street” designation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Formed Lake Wales Main Street, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, which became an early example of how the “Lake Wales Way” gets things done with professional leadership, a community-wide board, and dues-paying community volunteers who do their work at no cost to the City.
Placed downtown on the National Trust’s register of historic commercial districts, qualifying owners for historic tax credits for reconstruction of buildings.
Formed a Community Redevelopment Agency for downtown. As building improvements in the downtown district worked to increase property values, that increase generated a tax increment that funded the CRA’s trust fund. The trust fund went for downtown improvements which again increased the tax base, thereby creating an upward economic spiral.

Downtown flourished during what has been termed the “Vinton’s Days” (after downtown’s premier destination restaurant in the historic Arcade Building). Unfortunately, the then City Commission took control of the downtown’s CRA, redirected its trust funds, and decimated the program. Downtown and its tax base has been in decline ever since.

The Fix: “The Lake Wales Way.” Applying the five-step Lake Wales Way to downtown redevelopment shows that — much like economic development — virtually all the pieces are in place:

  1. Community consensus about downtown is clear,
  2. The nonprofit Lake Wales Main Street, Inc. is still available,
  3. The nonprofit is located within the City,
  4. CRA funds can provide the same $100,000 seed money for redevelopment that was provided to the Economic Development Council for its success in development, and
  5. The nonprofit — using professional leadership, a community-wide board, the work of dues paying volunteers, and critical seed money from the City — can pick up the pieces from the prior success and put downtown back to where the citizens want it to be.

Robin Gibson
Lake Wales City Commission
Seat 5, District 28