Looking Back: The Top Ten News Stories of 2021 in Lake Wales
Last updated 1/12/2022 at 12:59pm
The year just completed saw a number of big stories that impacted the Lake Wales community, and we've taken a look back at them through the perspective of the new year. Here's how our staff ranked the biggest stories of 2021.
1) A development surge saw multiple projects brought forward for consideration by the Lake Wales Development Services and the City Commission, including the long-dormant Winter Haven Corporation project which is expected to include more than 6,000 new dwelling units plus commercial, warehouse and office facilities. That project is part of a list totaling over 10,000 units.
2) The Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) advanced a bond issue for $18.5 million to fund the construction of multiple redevelopment projects in the city's core areas, including the reconstruction of some 15 blocks of city streets including Park Avenue and First Street, plus more than a mile of new sidewalks and streetscapes in the Northwest Neighborhood, all part of the "Lake Wales Connected" plan spearheaded by Lake Wales Main Street.
3) Lake Wales Charter Schools Superintendent Jesse Jackson submitted his resignation in January after 13 years, but Trustees abruptly suspended him and negotiated his immediate departure after he removed Hillcrest Elementary Principal Jennifer Barrow. Trustees subsequently requested an investigation of Barrow's leadership at the school by the Polk Sheriff's Office. Barrow retaliated by filing a civil suit against the Charter School System.
4) In a surprising victory, political newcomer Kris Fitzgerald, who is Black, defeated incumbent City Commissioner Al Goldstein, who then accused the electorate of "racism" despite the small number of Black voters who participated in the election, and suggested the city is "on the cusp of destruction." Fitzgerald was subsequently removed from office by the governor after being arrested after an 11-year-old boy accused her of threatening him with a handgun. That matter is yet to be adjudicated.
5) Plans were announced for the construction of a "mixed use plaza" on Lincoln Avenue, sparking hopes for a revival of commercial activity on a street that long served as the heart of the Northwest Neighborhood. The proposed two-story building would house law offices, residences, and retail space.
6) A 16-month undercover investigation dubbed "Operation Bell Gang" conducted by the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force and the Polk County Sheriff's Office undercover narcotics detectives made 29 arrests in the Lake Wales area in July. Detectives filed 301 total felony and 134 total misdemeanor charges against the suspects during the investigation.
7) The long-vacant Walesbilt Hotel became the focus of City Commission attention in December after their move to file a lawsuit against owner Ray Brown brought to light an unannounced redevelopment proposal. The proposal calls for the redevelopment of not only the eleven-story hotel but the entire city block, creating a parking garage, conference center, retail space, and a small "Annex Hotel." The Commission authorized staff to negotiate a deal by January 15 to avoid the suit filing.
8) Only months after a May 4 grand opening, the 335-unit Serenity Apartments near Eagle Ridge Mall was filled as the high demand for housing in the Lake Wales area continues to prove resilient despite an uptick in home building. City planners are anticipating designs in the near future for several new apartment and townhome projects.
9) The global Covid-19 pandemic proved its resiliency with new waves triggered by variant strains including Delta and Omicron, continuing to disrupt lives. Although the State of Florida has suppressed reporting total deaths, Polk County was experiencing a dramatic rise in COVID-19 infections as the omicron variant spread at year end, and confirmed infections spiked 262% in Polk County for the week ending Thursday, December 20.
10) The City of Lake Wales acquired title to the three-story Seminole Hotel on First Street after reaching a settlement in binding arbitration in November. The property is expected to be transferred to the Community Redevelopment Agency, which will seek developer proposals for the reuse of the historic building.