Clewiston is losing its sugar plant – and wondering what comes next.
For nearly eight decades in this town on the banks of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, sugar has reigned. The main street here is Sugarland Highway; the real estate agency is Sugar Realty – located in a building called Sugar Suites; the football team plays at Cane Field Stadium; children play at Candy Cane Park; and at the Sugar Festival every spring, there’s an old-fashioned cane grinding, a Miss Sugar pageant, and, of course, a dessert contest. Welcome to America’s Sweetest Town, home of the US Sugar Corp., a place where cane fields line the highway – and where, suddenly, a lot of people are feeling sour.
Clewiston’s US Sugar Corp. is dissolving – sold to the state in a $1.75 billion land deal that will see the bulk of its 187,000 acres go to the Everglades Restoration Project. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s announcement last month came as a bolt from the blue for US Sugar’s 1,700 workers and a community that has long depended on the company’s presence.
For most of the 6,500 or so residents here, there is little to feel positive about. At the First Baptist Church of Clewiston, a sign appeared soon after the announcement, advertising the theme of Sunday’s sermon: “A word for the anxious, angry and fearful.”
But while there is plenty of despair, Mali Soto Chamness insists on a glimmer of optimism. As Clewiston’s mayor since 2001, she is determined to lead the town through its gloom and build opportunities that will enable people to once again, as an old brochure for this town urges, “Climb with Clewiston.”
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