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In Florida, one sugar town's bittersweet change

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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.”

“It’s not just because of the sugar that we are America’s Sweetest Town, but also because of the goodness of the people here, their steadfastness and resoluteness,” Ms. Chamness says.

Ensuring resilience is quite a task for a mayor who already works full time as an executive in the local bank. She knows the challenges are considerable: Property values are expected to go into a tailspin, leaving owners trapped in a town with few jobs; real estate deals that were in the works prior to the announcement have stalled.

Then there’s the tax loss. In all, Hendry County could lose up to 24 percent of its tax revenue. Once the company shuts, in six years, 30 percent of the county’s land will be owned by the state and federal governments, and all 1,700 US Sugar workers will have been laid off.

“Those 1,700 jobs represent dollars that could be spent in our community,” Chamness says. “Everything here is dependent on US Sugar and the people who work for it, who pay taxes, who purchase groceries here, send their kids to school here, bring family members to visit.... Take away US Sugar and what have you got? A big hole in the economy.”

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Chamness has demanded assistance from the state in drawing up a detailed economic-development plan. Some locals think that Clewiston’s tourism trade could be expanded to take fuller advantage of the fine local fishing and birding. Others talk of agricultural opportunities, ethanol production, and new jobs from the Everglades Restoration Project and the proposed creation of an inland port at nearby South Bay. Clewiston has also been working to attract corporate dollars with the creation of a commerce park here, although the project, which began four years ago, has not brought in a single job.

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