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Margate Struggles With “Hometown Feel”

An eight-hour strategic planning meeting involving Margate elected officials, city department heads and executive city staff resulted in numerous positive outcomes. The goal of the session was to revise the city’s current strategic plan and guide future municipal efforts. Margate’s 'hometown feel' was a center of attention. “What does a hometown feel mean to you?” asked session facilitator Dr, Mickey A. Benson, PhD. “We want to get to a collaborative body that can come up with a plan.” ____________ “Parks, entertainment venues, places to bring your family to be entertained and be safe,” responded Margate City Commissioner, Anthony Caggiano.

Vice Mayor, Arlene Schwartz, went right for discussing Margate's plans for downtown, and said she views the city center as a destination for residents with few apartments as possible. Traffic is bad now and hundreds of apartments will worsen it. In contrast, Commissioner, Lesa Peerman - a proponent of density in the downtown area, maintained that apartments are needed to fuel the downtown economy. Traffic issues, if any, can be worked out with the help of county transportation officials, she said. “People that work in the city and the people that live in the city. It’s the feel of bringing people together – not buildings,” Peerman said of “hometown feel” - to which all five commissioners agreed to address in future strategic plans.

Commissioner Joanne Simone, suggested that "Complete Streets" would serve the City’s hometown feel. Broward County’s Complete Streets program favors safety for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists alike along main thoroughfares.

“Complete streets will make the City more family-friendly,” Simone said.

To this end, State Road 7 in Margate is said to be one of the most dangerous and congested in Broward, with an infinite number of blinds spots entering and exiting commercial properties. Motorists travel regularly at speeds in excess of 50 mph and shrubbery, monument signs and various other obstacles have created ingress/egress nightmares. Bicyclists frequently travel on sidewalks against traffic while motorists look the opposite way in hopes of inching their way into the street.

For Mayor, Tommy Ruzzano, the city’s development plan on the table for the Margate downtown does not portray a hometown feel. The deal was signed last year and includes the sale of taxpayer-owned land valued at $30 million to a developer for $10 million and nearly 1,000 apartments to add to an already saturated rental market and an already dangerously crowded main drag.

“Why do we want to take the hometown feel of Margate and urbanize it?” he said of a development deal that became controversial when commissioners elected to office in 2016 wanted to quash it.

“If it were up to me we wouldn’t build anymore apartments in Margate,” the Mayor said, adding public schools are maxed out. “We have no school space. If our charter schools closed we wouldn’t have enough schools for the children. “Apartments don’t bring in revenue and at the same time use costly police and fire services. The traffic will be unbearable. That in my mind is not a hometown feel.” A city sandwiched by neighboring municipalities like Coconut Creek, Coral Springs and Pompano Beach that while those cities promote urban living have caused a conundrum for Margate: Whether one of Broward's oldest cities west should urbanize alongside others or differentiate by advancing a peaceful, “Mayberryesque” hometown charm. Over the years, many who formerly lived and worked in Margate have left the city and elected officials have looked to compete with cities with broader tax bases, newer home and commercial inventories and superior public schools. The City of Margate - while older than some neighbors - has never had a high school of its own and all four Margate public schools received a 'C' rank from the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) last school year.

In decades’ time, Margate has slipped into abyss, fostering disconnects with commercial landlords and residents through inadequate public outreach; code compliance/enforcement issues and an out-migration of businesses exceeding those opening. Margate would grow to be known as an unfriendly place to start or expand a business due to overtly complicated zoning requirements, long waits for inspections and a bureaucratic municipal process that in the end would eat up the capital of investors by postponing building occupancies. The city’s hometown feel took a hit too when circa 2014 the City dismantled its public safety dispatch unit to join countywide efforts - a move most in Margate agree was a mistake. Especially if the City considers going its own again at a price tag that could exceed $10 million. In return for enjoining a system rife with poorly trained and poorly managed personnel, Margate parted with nearly two dozen of its own dispatch employees who were intimately familiar with Margate streets, roads and landmarks. The switch resulted in insufficient and untimely information for first responders and was a detriment to the customer service Margate residents were used to. [if !supportLineBreakNewLine] [endif]“We took away our hometown feel when we changed our communication wand went to BSO (Broward Sheriffs Office),” Interim City Manager, Sam May, told elected officials. “We went to a countywide service and now we don’t have a hometown feel.

”With history repeating itself, public safety dispatch conditions were similar in 1975, when then Margate Fire Chief, Robert Lindley, said about Broward dispatch: “It Stinks!"*

The aspect of community policing and the Margate Police Department's approach to it was also raised.

“We want more of community policing,” Schwartz said, advocating against dangerous street parking in Margate single-family home communities and advocating for police to have more direct contact with the public when patrolling neighborhoods.

Margate Police Chief, Dana Watson, said he believed the police have achieved trust within the community and three years in a row the department's average customer service rating was 92% via random surveys.

While commissioners agreed on several factors that constitute a “hometown feel” in Margate - talks at times were heated. Dr. Benson suggested city officials connect more with constituents for guidance.

“Get a group of citizens to participate,” she said. “You may not like it [what you hear], but look at the options. Take a direct unemotional approach to community involvement,” said Benson, adding that elected officials are conflicted as to what each perceives as a hometown, a destination, an urban or suburban environment.

“Partner with the community and get some input,” Dr. Benson said.

The Story of Margate Florida, 1955-2005. William P. Cahill.Ch. 8 pg. 163 All photos appear in City of Margate archives.

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