A number of residents opposed to the redevelopment of the Lake Wellington area addressed the Wellington Village Council on Tuesday, Aug. 28.
While the item wasn’t on the agenda, key people from the Wellington Chamber of Commerce spoke during the public forum portion of the meeting against the proposal. Money for the design phase of the plan is set to be voted on as part of the village’s proposed 2018-19 fiscal year budget in September. The project itself, however, has not been approved.
Village staff unveiled an ambitious proposal for the lakefront property at the council’s budget/capital improvements workshop on Aug. 13. The current concept calls for a multi-use recreational area including an artificial beach and a café.
A portion of the proposed site currently contains the Lake Wellington Professional Centre, home to more than 170 businesses. The displacement of these businesses has caused the proposal to meet with opposition from business and civic leaders, including Mayor Anne Gerwig, who spoke against the plan at the budget workshop.
The first to speak was Wellington resident Roxanne Stein, a former WPTV news anchor who now serves as president of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re here tonight to express opposition to the Lake Wellington redevelopment initiative,” Stein said. “This demolition is of concern because it would result in the displacement of more than 170 businesses. Many of these businesses are owned by residents, and they contribute to the successful business climate that we’re experiencing here in Wellington. All have local clientele and they enjoy the convenience of the location.”
Among the tenants at the village-owned facility is the Wellington Chamber.
“The Lake Wellington Professional Centre generates in excess of $200,000 a year annually for the village,” Stein said. “It’s the only executive suite business model within the village that supports small business.”
Stein feels that the proposal has been moving forward too quickly without enough public input.
“You, as a council, have already allocated $1.2 million in the current budget just for a design concept,” she said. “In our opinion, a marketing and feasibility study, as well as public input via town hall meetings and workshops for this proposal, are much more appropriate initial steps for a project that is expected to cost in excess of $8 million just in demolition and development expenses.”
Stein added that people she has spoken to remain in the dark about the Lake Wellington plan.
“Where is the output from the village on this proposal?” she asked. “We’re asking all of you this evening, how can you, as an elected council, justify spending in excess of $8 million of taxpayer money, as well as perhaps jeopardize the livelihood of local businesses, without public input?”
The next to speak was Dermot Mac Mahon, a local real estate attorney with an office at the Lake Wellington Professional Centre and a chamber board member.
“There [are] no other executive suite offices in the Wellington area, nor in Royal Palm Beach,” said Mac Mahon, who is worried that he may lose clients if he has to leave the area to find a similar office setup. “Right now, there has been no public opinion or feedback from the public as to this plan. My suggestion is to have more public input.”
Mac Mahon suggested a series of town hall meetings.
“As a resident, I also object to the plans for the beach,” he continued. “If I want to go to the beach, I’m going to go east. I’m not going to go to that beach — trust me — nor will my family. If I want to go canoeing or kayaking, I’m going to go up to Jupiter.”
Mac Mahon believes that the project will be underutilized.
“You’re spending more than $8 million for a project to put sand in and remove 170-plus businesses,” he said. “I think you should bring this up at a public forum and have input from the public and let the public be aware of this before you decide and vote on it.”
Also speaking against the Lake Wellington redevelopment was attorney Scott Sweigart.
“I do find when people want an attorney for themselves, they do want an attorney close to where they live,” Sweigart said. “I have offices in eastern Palm Beach County, as well as out here. I find that a lot of the residents out here prefer to deal with professionals in the Wellington area. There does seem to be that psychological corridor divide that the people from the east don’t want to go west, and the people from the west don’t want to go east.”
He also does not believe that the waterfront park proposal will be successful.
“I oftentimes work on the weekend,” Sweigart said. “One of the things I find is that although the lake is accessible now — there’s the gazebo, there’s picnic tables — rarely do I see anybody in that building or around that building on the weekend, other than the tenants who are there working. If people aren’t using it now, why displace more than 170 businesses to create an atmosphere that people may not even utilize?”
Vice Mayor Michael Drahos addressed the concerns of the speakers. “A lot of what was said is really, really premature,” Drahos said. “We have certainly discussed the Lake Wellington Professional Centre. I have probably been one of the most outspoken advocates for the project. But we have not made any decisions — we have not voted on a budget yet.”
Drahos stressed that the plan is far from being approved.
“The comments made tonight that we’re allocating $1.2 million for a design — that we’re going to be spending $8 million without public input — is not fair to the public listening at home, and it certainly isn’t fair to this council, because it’s not accurate,” Drahos said. “We have not made that vote yet, and I would never — nor would anybody on this council — decide to spend $8 million of the public’s money without public input. I don’t have any intention to make any decisions about the future of the Lake Wellington Professional Centre or the activation of the waterfront without public input.”
He stressed that all the design plans are preliminary in nature.
“I would ask that you allow the process the proper respect that it deserves and not jump to conclusions,” Drahos said. “There [are] designs that you have seen that does have a beach layout. There’s been a cafe in some of those designs, but they’re just concepts — there’s nothing definitive there at all.”
Drahos and Councilman John McGovern said that they were available for private meetings with anyone in the community who wants to share their opinions on Lake Wellington.
The village is currently renewing leases with tenants of the Lake Wellington Professional Centre, since regardless of the outcome of the budget vote, it will be more than a year before any redevelopment begins.