Decision Apopka 2018
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of features on the 10 candidates running for office in the Apopka municipal elections.
Apopka City Commission Candidate Feature: Seat #1 Alexander Smith
Alexander Smith is a product of Apopka. In many ways, he embodies its history, its struggle, and its growth like no other. Smith was born in poverty and raised in South Apopka.
“We had an outhouse in the backyard,” said Smith, describing his childhood home. “If we wanted to feed the chickens, we just dropped the feed through the floorboards. We didn’t even have to go outside.”
At an early age, Smith began his career in the farming industry picking oranges, firing orange groves at night, working in the citrus packing house, on the muck farm in Zellwood pulling corn, picking cucumbers and cutting cabbage. His days began at 5 AM on the job, followed by a long walk to school. After school ended for the day, he walked back to his job and worked until evening.
It was this back-breaking work as a youth that Smith believes built his character, and spring-boarded him into the next chapter of his life.
“I grew up in South Apopka,” he said. “I know their plight. Because of my diverse background which has always involved working with people from my early childhood until the present I have learned to appreciate all professions.”
Smith is running for the Apopka City Commission Seat #1 currently held by six-term incumbent Commissioner Billie Dean. The two men have quite a history together.
In 1970, Smith, a ninth grader, went to his first Apopka City Council meeting. Dean, Smith’s teacher at the time, took him to see Alonzo Williams Jr., the first black Commissioner in Apopka history. It was his first year on the City Council. Williams held that seat for 24 years until Dean succeeded him as the second black commissioner in Apopka history in 1994.
Smith was in awe of Williams and decided he would follow in his footsteps one day.
“That visit made a lasting impression and one of my lifelong goals has been to become one of Apopka’s City Commissioners,” he said.
Smith, 61, graduated from Apopka High School, and then went to Florida A&M University, graduating with a degree in Agricultural Education and a minor in Horticultural Science. He returned to Apopka after college and worked in the Orange County Public School system for 39 years before his retirement.
But even after a career in education that spanned four decades, Smith still has a passion for improving the lives of children.
“I want to bring more opportunities to the youth in Apopka,” Smith said. “Recreational activities, internship programs, and mentor programs. We need more parks evenly distributed throughout the city, not in just one place. Youth is my passion. Young people are our future. But if we don’t prepare them for the future, we won’t have a future.”
If elected as a city commissioner, Smith would also like to revisit three other amenities for the youth of this community that seem to have been forgotten.
“Years ago, several businesses committed to bringing a YMCA, Boy’s Club, and a swimming pool to Apopka,” he said. “They were going to contribute to the costs of bringing those here, and I’m not sure why it failed or what happened, but I would go back to those businesses and ask them to invest in our city. We can always also seek grants from the federal and state level to supplement what we cannot raise on our own.”
Of all the issues facing Apopka, Smith believes managing its impending population boom, and economic development is the most important to Apopka’s future.
“Growth is something we can’t stop. It’s coming. And that’s a good thing. But I just think it needs to be managed. And if managed properly, growth can be good. We don’t want to destroy the environment and atmosphere that attracted people to make Apopka their home. We need to balance what we’re doing when it comes to growth.”
He has also listened closely to the budget debates and believes the general fund reserves need to be dramatically increased in the coming years.
“The reserve should be enough to cover at least six months of actual expenses in case there’s a disaster or if something drastic happens… or in case an unexpected opportunity becomes available that we can profit from and there are funds in the reserve not allocated. We as a city could benefit from that opportunity.”
Although Smith did not specify any specific budget cuts or tax increases to build the reserves to the level he desires, he does believe that if the City staff were given a directive, they could accomplish it within five years.
“It could be incrementally put into place over time,” he said. “But it’s something the City Council should instruct the staff to do.”
He also wants to see the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) balance its plan from a heavy economic development strategy to a more proportionate approach that includes a mix of residential projects.
“I think there needs to be a balance as to how the CRA dollars are spent. I can understand the economic development part, but I think some of those funds should be spent in residential areas as well because it says slum and blight… so I think they are addressing the blighted part, but not the slum.”
Annexation of South Apopka was referenced in the mayoral debate, and it’s a topic Smith knows well. Although he is a resident of Rock Springs Ridge, he hasn’t forgotten his roots, and he remembers a time when Apopka tried to annex South Apopka but failed. Smith, however, believes that if annexation came up again, things could be different. And he, for one, would like to try.
“I’m in favor of annexing South Apopka. It’s the humane thing to do. I was there 40 years ago when it was placed on the ballot, but no one visited that community and presented them with the advantages of being a part of the city. I think if they did, they would have seen the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages. The city didn’t do a very good job of educating South Apopka about the benefits of being in the city. Orange County did an outstanding job of why they should stay in the county, therefore it failed.”
Despite the setback, Smith believes the climate for annexation may be advantageous.
“Since that time, a lot of people have been educated as to the benefits of being a part of the city. The government that’s closer to you is better able to serve you. South Apopka is closer to the city of Apopka. So, therefore, it’s better able to serve those residents. We realize there’s going to be economic challenges providing those services to South Apopka. The county collects taxes from them, but they don’t provide a lot of services. It’s like free money. I feel annexing South Apopka into the city would be a benefit to both the residence and Apopka. We already provide water. I don’t think the cost is going to be so drastic like some are saying. I know the property values are a little lower there, but when you look at the map of Apopka, they have gone all around South Apopka and so I think it’s unfair to cast them adrift. It seems like they’re saying ‘you’re not worth being a part of our city… your second-class citizens. We’ve gone around you and sucked everything else up and left you on this little island.’
Despite his clear passion for South Apopka, Smith insists that if elected he will be a commissioner for all of Apopka.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “Everyone has their agenda. I hear people in the audience at City Council meetings whispering to each other ‘what about what the people think?’ I want to be the people’s voice on City Council. My goal is to represent all of Apopka.”
And Smith, the product of Apopka that was refined in the muck farms of Zellwood, seasoned in the classrooms of Orange County, and rooted in the community that he loves is still living by the golden rule he learned as a child.
“It is my belief that all men and women are created equal and regardless of our backgrounds or our walk in life that it takes those blended experiences to improve the quality of life for every individual. I have not forgotten where I came from and what it took to get to the crossroads of my life.”