Communication Builds Our Community

OPINION: Slaton Faces Choice That Will Affect Thousands

Courtesy City of Lake Wales

City Manager James Slaton has led Lake Wales through a series of steps that have made it the envy of communities around the state. Many city staffers are now being asked for advice from peers elsewhere wondering how it was all accomplished.

Lake Wales City Manager James Slaton finds his relaxation, he recently told Lake Wales News, by fishing, typically on salt water far from the ring of a telephone. It's an understandable outlet. Slaton has demonstrated that he can play just as well on dry land, whatever the game.

The job of city manager is undoubtedly one of the more interesting and challenging careers in the modern workforce. Charged with running a government as an appointed, rather than elected, official, managers deal with issues of immediate, and sometimes stressful, impact upon the lives of citizens.

City managers are also well-known as transient leaders who frequently shift from city to city, often due to political pressures from the elected officials who hire and fire them.

For the past four years Lake Wales has moved forward under the direction of Slaton. Unlike the leadership found in most cities, Slaton is largely a home-grown talent who rose through the ranks over a career of more than two decades. As the saying goes, he has "skin in the game" of making Lake Wales a better community in which to live.

Robert Connors

The transformation of this formerly barren stretch of West Park Avenue into an attractive pedestrian promenade is a foretaste of the change in store for much of the city's urban core.

Under Slaton's leadership Lake Wales has addressed a series of challenges that would have stymied many. When business leaders working with the Main Street program began pushing for reinvigoration of the historic downtown commercial district, he caught the pass and scored.

After leading the selection of an award-winning team of planners, the Lake Wales Connected plan was born with a broad measure of community input. Now it is rapidly transforming the city's heart into a shady garden.

Courtesy City of Lake Wales

A runway extension, new taxiways, lighting, and hangars are among improvements that have moved Lake Wales Airport into the 21st century and expanded its use as an economic engine for southeastern Polk County.

When the enormous pressure of growth built to a sudden crescendo Slaton led city commissioners to take a big step into city planning with Lake Wales Envisioned, another community-developed plan which may help to shape that growth into a more-tolerable form than the urban sprawl that is consuming the rest of Florida.

The aggressive pursuit of grants has reduced the cost of those efforts for local taxpayers. Major improvements to Lake Wales Airport found success in the same formula.

An expanded network of bike and walking paths and the refurbished community asset of the Lake Wales Woman's Club auditorium can also be credited to Slaton's decision-making and recommendations.

Other challenges, from resurfacing decaying streets to upgrading essential utility infrastructure to the planned replacement of aging public housing with new mixed-income neighborhoods, have been addressed.

Courtesy City of Lake Wales

An affordable housing program conducted in cooperation with multiple private partners has resulted in the construction of new housing in the long-neglected Northwest Neighborhood of Lake Wales, raising property values and improving quality of life.

Slaton has led Lake Wales to become only the second city in Polk to offer local bus service to address a local food desert, and to add a free downtown shuttle service to boost local merchants as the area is transformed.

Courtesy City of Lake Wales

Under Slaton's leadership Lake Wales became only the second city in the region to offer a local circulator bus service in 2023. Citrus Connection officials were surprised at the significant ridership it immediately attracted.

A first-ever horticulture program will move the city back toward its status as "A City in a Garden" while recreation facilities will benefit from a new turf-management program. A city recreation center, complete with a swimming pool, had been a goal for decades. Now it's a reality.

Slaton has continually sought to sharpen his personal skills, pursuing continuing education and earning additional certificates that mark him among the tops in the field.

No man is perfect and mistakes have certainly been made along the way, some of which are likely to be addressed in the future in both the news and commentary sections of this publication. Yet Slaton has generally excelled against a history of bumbling and controversial local managers. He has made, and continues to make, a progressive and historic mark upon the City of Lake Wales.

Yet in the background, Slaton is lured by the siren-song of water sloshing against the side of a boat and a shorter trip to that outlet. Controversies, often sparked by elected officials, add to pressures and a desire for change.

Robert Connors

The Lake Wales Family Recreation Center now offers access to a public swimming pool to area residents, a goal that had been discussed for decades without resolution.

City managers typically offer their resumes to headhunters for a variety of reasons. Reassessment of worth, affirmation, a better offer, or sometimes a real desire to flee an unsustainable situation.

Slaton is being represented in a marketplace of city managers from around the nation who are seeking new posts, and his credentials make him a credible and attractive candidate. He is likely to face a career choice that will affect not only him, but 18,000 other people in Lake Wales.

If he chooses to remain, he will be in the heart of perhaps the most-impactful wave of growth occurring in the state. He will stay at the reins of a team he has shaped and re-shaped during his tenure, burnishing a track-record of accomplishments that would be impossible in most other jurisdictions.

We are hopeful that James will choose to stay, that he will recognize the rare opportunity he has been given to continue shaping a fast-growing city and continuing to guide a transformation that will result in accolades for generations.


Reader Comments(1)

Jkbray53 writes:

So nice to see a balanced story when most news outlets would be one sided (pro or con). James is a community asset, albeit a human one with his share of plus and minus points. Lake Wales should appreciate having both James and the Lake Wales News. net.