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Alexander Smith: "The annexation of South Apopka is still a passion of mine"

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By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor

Apopka City Commissioner Alexander Smith is a quiet man.

"I have two ears and one mouth," Smith says. "Therefore I listen twice as much as I talk."

And despite the two-parts listen, one-part talk recipe, when Smith does speak, it's often noteworthy and unexpected. I heard a lot of opinions and observations from him that I didn't know when we sat down at City Hall the day after his campaign event announcing his reelection bid for Seat #1.

Smith grew up in the Graveyard Quarters of South Apopka - a chronically poor section in a poverty-stricken community. For Smith, and for most of the residents at that time, back-breaking jobs at a very young age were inevitable.

But hard work and education seemed to be a dominant strand in his DNA.

Beginning as a child and continuing through high school, Smith took jobs at the Apopka citrus groves and Zellwood muck farms picking oranges, firing groves at night, pulling corn, harvesting cucumbers, and cutting cabbage - all while going to school.

He left Apopka to go to college; graduating from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. But then, Smith made an unusual decision - he came back. According to Smith, many of his peers strived to leave Apopka after graduation, and never return.

"Many of my peers strived to leave Apopka after graduation," he wrote in a 2018 campaign feature. "My desire was to get an education and remain in Apopka to make a difference."

After college, Smith taught Agriculture in the Orange County Public School system at Apopka and Liberty Junior High, Dr. Phillips High School, and Deland High School (in Volusia County) for 39 years before retiring. He is also an Associate Pastor at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in South Apopka since 2006.

It's a compelling story; one that captured the imagination and votes of Apopka residents in 2018. A good narrative can get a candidate elected to office, but an incumbent running for reelection has to rely on their actions taken after the seat is won.

"The first term has been great," Smith said. "It's been an eye-opener. It's exposed me to a great deal of things our city has to offer, as well as a lot more needs. It's been a great first term."

Smith listed - among those needs - a lack of communication from the City to its residents.

"There are a lot of things that go on in this city that residents don't know about. It's still, to me, a problem that needs to be addressed. With all the free concerts we had at the Northwest Recreational Facility, there are still residents who don't know they are taking place," Smith said. "We still have a communication barrier... getting communication out there to our residents... even with social media... a lot of people aren't on social media. Our marquee on 441... a lot of people don't see it. The newsletter mailed with the water bill that most of our residents receive... but they don't read it... so I haven't figured out how to resolve this as of yet."

It's no secret that Apopka is growing at a fast pace. Some would say too fast. But rather than fight growth, Smith would like to stay ahead of the emerging population and development by anticipating the needs a larger city will need.

"We're working on infrastructure to make sure that we keep up with the growth of our city," Smith said. "We know that we can't stop it... so the best thing to do is manage growth. It's important to have the infrastructure in place as developments come on board with potential projects. The staff has been working with them to contribute toward helping with infrastructure so that the entire burden is not on the City and developers have been very cooperative."

South Apopka

Perhaps Smith's greatest passion, greatest challenge, and greatest frustration all can be summed up in one community - South Apopka. He wants it to be part of the city - not just stopping at 10th Street. And the importance of this goes well beyond a theoretical wish list.

"The annexation of South Apopka is still a passion of mine. I want to see it accomplished. I feel it's a necessity. We need to be one city and not divided."

His frustration starts with Orange County.

"I talked with the county about making that a reality. My initial request was that they set aside funds to bring the unincorporated areas of Apopka up to standards before annexing it into the City because it's not fair for Apopka to take on all the expenses. They responded that they need to do a study to see what the cost factor would be and that it would be two years. I'm not sure where that is at this point... that was three years ago."

During the 2018 election cycle in Apopka, general fund reserves were a prominent topic. Smith was an advocate for a large reserve position.

"We ought to have enough in reserves so that if something happened, we wouldn't have to shut down the City. If we have 15-25% in reserves, I think we would be safe."

That was his statement in 2018, and it hasn't changed in 2021. But what if a plan to annex South Apopka presented itself in the coming years, and the price tag for annexation was $10 million? Would Smith vote to pay the price? Would he pull it from the reserves if need be? Hypothetically and with limited conditions, Smith would take the deal.

"Because I believe South Apopka needs to be annexed into the City, depending on what that $10 million was going to do... if it was going to improve the infrastructure, and we could make that annexation happen, then I would be willing to spend the $10 million... even if it were straight out of the reserves."

It's a bold statement. Most elected officials don't respond to hypothetical questions; especially as they embark on a run for a second term. But his willing assertion suggests that Smith intends to make this part of his campaign platform in 2022.

Education

After spending the majority of his adult life as a teacher, it's not surprising education is also one of Smith's passions. But the growth in Apopka is creating yet another issue in this arena.

"We're addressing overcrowding in schools because when a school is overcrowded it's difficult for students to learn and teachers to teach. That's an issue we have to address, but it's an issue that's bigger than Apopka because there's a state rule you have to be a certain percent overcrowded to get a new school. And so you just have to play the numbers game. We got the K-8 school, but soon we're going to need a new high school, and with all the development we've got coming on board I believe the K-8 school will be at capacity when it opens. With all the growth in the north end of town, those students have to go somewhere. We're still behind."

Smith was also on the trail of bringing his alma mater to Apopka before the pandemic hit.

"It's been a year-and-a-half since the City signed an MOU with FAMU [Florida A&M University] to build a satellite campus in Apopka, but because of the pandemic that was put on hold," he said. "We have a plan for what degrees to offer, and Apopka has set aside 28 acres of land that they're willing to donate for the campus. That is one project that I'd like to see through."

Housing

He is also an advocate for bringing more affordable housing to Apopka. And although the phrasing has changed, his ask is still the same.

"We still need to address workforce housing. There is a need for it here. We have a lot of great individuals who graduate from Apopka and Wekiva High Schools, go off to college, get degrees, but when they come back to Apopka, they can't afford to live here because housing is so expensive... so if we have workforce housing, they can afford to live here and we can keep all our great citizens here rather than going elsewhere."

As a commissioner, saying you want something and doing something about it are two different paths - but Smith says he has alerted builders about this idea.

"I've talked to two developers about this, but at this point, nobody is willing to do this because the housing market is booming and their thing is 'why would I build a $250,000 house when I can build a $400,000 house and they're selling like hot cakes?' Right now, nobody is willing to do that... but you have to keep asking. There are incentives in place that will hopefully entice developers to do that kind of a model. You just have to find that developer who is willing to step outside the box."

Economic Development

In the 2022 election, economic development is likely going to be a primary issue in Apopka. It seems clear residents have seen one too many dollar stores and fast-food restaurants to simply let market conditions dictate what businesses will come to town. And while Smith is listening to the residents, he also has opinions of his own on what the City should be doing to combat that.

"What I hear most from our citizens is we need fine dining. They would like to see more restaurants - not necessarily five-star restaurants, but not fast food. They'd like to have a Red Lobster, Cheddars, or Cracker Barrel... or a nice steakhouse."

And while he agrees there are too many dollar stores and fast-food restaurants, Smith does not think that an economic director or department would improve conditions beyond what the Community Development Department is doing.

"I'm not in favor of creating another department or director's position," Smith said. "I talk to Jim Hitt quite a bit and I voiced the sentiments of the residents to see more restaurants in our city and fewer of the fast-food kind. He listens, and when he talks to developers... like the developer that's going to do the Town Center... he knows that's something that needs to take place. And the new town center around the 429 and 441. Development is taking place at the Kelly Park Crossings... so he's talking to those individuals about incorporating those into the plans. Mixed-Use means more than just homes. When we talk about mixed-use it also means businesses, restaurants, education, hospitals, and grocery stores."

Rock Springs Ridge

Smith also surprised the City Council at its June 2nd meeting when a debate about the Rock Springs Ridge Golf Course was in full swing.

“That’s the big question, do they want it?” City Commissioner Diane Velazquez asked about the residents of Rock Springs Ridge wanting the deal that would ultimately give them control of the golf course. “We don’t have that at all.”

Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson pushed back on that assertion by referencing the first RSR meeting at the Apopka Amphitheater in April.

“Well, I think only four people said they were against it at the last meeting,” said Nelson.

“But that was probably only one-third of the RSR residents,” said Velazquez.

“I’m only saying, of all the people there, only four people raised their hands against it,” Nelson said.

Smith, who had been relatively quiet on the subject, suddenly countered Nelson's observation.

"The rest of them were afraid to," said Smith. "They didn’t want to be assassinated."

It was a surprisingly candid moment in the discussion, but Smith's skepticism of the RSR deal continued in a later interview.

"I'm hesitant because there are too many unknowns," Smith said. "Because when we talk about the land swap, and the land is worth $2.4 million... so we know we have to pay the City $2.4 million. But then when you're talking about rehabilitating the golf course, what is that going to cost? There's a clubhouse that needs renovation. Who is going to pay for that? What's that going to cost? If we decide to put the golf course back, the sprinkler system is gone. The whole golf course needs to be re-irrigated. That's a cost. Who is going to pay for that? What is it going to cost to maintain the golf course? Nobody is giving any numbers."

As it stands, and as an RSR resident, Smith confirmed that he would vote against the deal moving forward.

"Residents call me, they see me walking, or at Publix... they stop and ask 'how much is this really going to cost me?' And I can't answer that question. We're going to have to borrow more than $2.4 million. We need to borrow more like $8 million to renovate, get the golf course back in shape. To get the recreational district started. So now that $130 is up to $400-500 per year. Because of the unknowns, I would not vote for this as a resident."

There will be many issues that make their way to the top of the conversation for the 2020 election, and a lot of candidates running for two... or possibly three seats on the Apopka City Commission - and for mayor. And with that many seats available, Smith could hold on to his unopposed. Or there could be a groundswell of candidates for all the elected slots - it's just too early to tell.

And while Smith's ideas and opinions may surprise you, the reason he wants you to vote for him should not.

"I'm a person that has morals. I have integrity. I'm honest. I'm a good communicator. I'm a true servant."

Running on honesty, integrity, and morality... wow, what a novel platform.

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