Letter from Arcadia

By staff February 1, 2007

I know it's hard to believe this, but the buzz is that our next-door neighbor, DeSoto County, is "the next big thing."

DeSoto County? Little DeSoto County? Impoverished DeSoto County?

One and the same.

Real estate investors and trendspotters are predicting that this area is set for explosive growth, with new subdivision developments about to pop up in every direction from Arcadia. All the indications are in place. Huge chunks of land have been bought, and the coastal counties are filling up and/or becoming too expensive for many folks.

But old-timers here find this all too funny. Arcadia? Who would have thought?

It wasn't all that long ago that this place had a CB radio nickname that described it well. Tune your CB to Channel 19 and you'd hear, "Hey, good buddies, this here's the Road Runner truckin' south from Cigar City, dropping off a load in Cowtown."

Cigar City was Tampa, of course, But Cowtown? That's what CB'ers called Arcadia.

And, with massive development still a few years away, the name remains fitting in many ways.

At its heart, this is a cow and citrus town.

I've known Arcadia for a long time. Once dated a girl who worked behind the soda fountain at Arcadia Drug Store. And I've worked here daily since Hurricane Charley blasted through DeSoto County on Aug. 13, 2004, and touched just about every life. I like it just the way it is. Many of the 33,000 residents here do, too.

There's no bumper-to-bumper traffic. No rush hour. Crime is low and serious crime is so rare it's always front page news. You want big news? A pit bull attack is big news. And the crime of the century here was some honor students at the high school vandalizing school buses as a senior graduation prank.

In many ways this is still Mayberry.

Lunch gossip has a Lake Woebegone quality about it.

"Someone tried to get my water pump again."


"Pried my gate. Third time this year."

"You call Vernon?"

"Nah. I didn't file a complaint, just mentioned it to him at Rotary."

And so it goes.

Go to a Web site devoted to DeSoto gossip, however, and the sleepy community reads more like Peyton Place. I can't even repeat the allegations about what young clerks do on their lunch hour. Mercy.

But all looks tranquil on the surface. Kids dive from an abandoned bridge into the Peace River, where fossil hunters comb the banks for million-year-old bones. Tractor-pulled sprayers work the orange groves lining most major roads. Cows riding in long trailers moo loudly on the way to the slaughter house.

I won't go there. I just ... can't.

DeSoto just got a Wal-Mart distribution center, you know. It was a huge deal. Word around town was that Wal-Mart was going to pay $12 an hour for manual laborers. Actually, it was $12.50!

That's like striking gold in a county like DeSoto.

It's also a measure of how poor DeSoto County is. A third of its residents are Hispanic, many of them field workers, some here only seasonally for the orange harvest. The county had the recent distinction of achieving the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in Florida. There's nothing to do here, the teens say. There's one rundown movie theater with two screens, but no bowling alley, no videogame arcade, no mall. Nothing.

The public swimming pool closed back when integration became a fact of American life. Some say the pool's closing was a consequence. But today's Arcadia has a City Council with two elected black members. It has a city marshal —called a police chief in other places—who is black. That's more than simply progress in Arcadia; it's a social revolution.

If I had to tell you what Arcadia is like in a single sentence, I'd say, "Arcadia is what Florida small towns were like 50 years ago."

Sarasota, Venice, Fort Myers, Naples, Lakeland, Orlando. They grew up. Blew up. Then there's Arcadia. Not much has changed here in the last 50 years.

The changes that did come were made east of the downtown, along State Road 70, a coast-to-coast, east-west route that brings trucks through Arcadia. Car dealers moved out to S.R. 70, then fast-food chains and shopping center tenants that come and go. Not long ago, a Sonic and a Chili's opened east of town. Still, when Arcadia wants to party or shop, it drives to Charlotte County.

This is an old place, you understand. Arcadia incorporated in 1896 and was named after the daughter of a prominent citizen. It's a lyrical name, certainly prettier than Bertha or Martha or Mildred. At the time of its birth, Arcadia was a timber, cattle and citrus town. A downtown was growing nicely, and wood was so plentiful it was the construction material of choice.

Even the sidewalks were wooden, as were the overhangs that protected shoppers from the elements. Rural residents came to Arcadia each weekend. They bought groceries, got haircuts, picked up a new shirt or two—but mostly, they talked. Arcadia was a meeting place.

Then came Thanksgiving Day, 1905.

Something still not known happened in a downtown stable and fire was seen coming from its windows as evening fell. Bucket brigades were quickly formed, but a wicked wind fanned the flames until they leaped wooden building to wooden building. Before long, efforts to control the fire were abandoned.

Arcadia, sidewalks and all, burned to the ground.

The day after Thanksgiving, the entire downtown—several square blocks—lay in blackened ruins.

Soon after, city leaders convened a meeting and decreed that rebuilding would be done with block and stone only. No wooden buildings. Walk down Oak Street, the main street in downtown Arcadia today, and atop most buildings can be seen a placement block reading "1906."

The entire town was rebuilt that year. It has changed little since.

Today, downtown Arcadia is famed for its antique stores. There are at least 20, and the number changes constantly. The town and its stores are a step back in time. Browsing triggers memories among shoppers that they feel compelled to share.

"My momma had one of these! She used it all the time. We threw it out after she died. Now look at this price."

A must-visit downtown is the Opera House. Once this was a place of pure entertainment—stage and screen. Now it's more like a museum where you can buy the contents. Many dealers share the building, reached after a steep climb up stairs leading off Oak Street.

After that, walk a half-block down Polk Avenue to the Hot Fudge Shoppe. All the ice cream is made on the premises. Not expensive, either.

While the antique district attracts outside visitors, downtown Arcadia offers little or nothing for the locals. And many now suggest that downtown Arcadia must diversify its shops if it is to survive.

You’d think Arcadia’s most valuable assets would be along the Peace River, which runs through the town. In most towns with rivers, riverfront property is the most desirable. Not here. South of State Road 70, along the river in Arcadia, lies an unsightly industrial wasteland of railroad cars and junked buses. Railroad tracks parallel the river. It's such a waste—a festering sore where beauty belongs. You just know some future developer will buy it all, throw the trash out and erect high-rise condominiums there.

Right now, however, the development interest is along Kings Highway from Port Charlotte and State Road 31 from Fort Myers. A Cape Coral developer has also put together sizable acreage along U.S. 17 from Punta Gorda.

The biggest buyer, however, is billionaire Brad Kelley, who made his fortune by starting a cigarette company in 1991. One of his brands, USA Gold, became the nation's fifth-best-selling cigarette and Kelley parlayed his startup investment into a billion-dollar sale of the company in its 10th year.

He began buying enormous chunks of land in southeastern DeSoto County, as well as in Texas and New Mexico. On these properties, he told the press, he would let endangered animals roam free. So that seems the fate of eastern DeSoto. Endangered animals are replacing canker-infected citrus trees.

Kelley lives in Kentucky and his purchases—totaling well over $40 million—have been made through a Venice attorney.

Developer interest has made rich folks of formerly good old boys and girls. County Commissioner Terry Welles, for instance, is a descendant of a long-time DeSoto family. Not long ago, he sold some pasture along U.S. 17 for a reported $27 million. Welles said the actual figure was nobody's business but his, then went out and took helicopter piloting lessons before buying his own helicopter to travel from a residence in the North Georgia mountains to DeSoto.

A big rodeo fan, he's told friends he'll fly down for every Arcadia rodeo event.

The oldest name in DeSoto County, however, has to be Turner. Long ago, Grandpa Turner bought "worthless scrub" land as far as the eye could see. He ran cattle on it, sold some timber, grew some citrus. Today, the Turner name appears most frequently on DeSoto properties, and the Turner family has branched out to include real estate sales among their businesses. Their combined fortune is beyond estimate.

Other big DeSoto businesses right now include fill dirt dug for coastal county use and sod farms to provide lots of green grass for those new coastal homes "starting in the low $400s." Huge trucks make driving on almost any highway in DeSoto an adventure.

But all has not been gold lately in DeSoto County. Problems began with the second major disaster to strike the area in a century. The first was fire; the second was wind.

Hurricane Charley blew into the county from the southwest, having first wreaked havoc in Charlotte County. It caught DeSoto largely by surprise. Most residents said afterwards that they were sure the ferocious hurricane was headed for Tampa Bay. But at the last minute, it turned.

With many families living in mobile homes or poorly constructed residences, safe shelter was needed. Some 1,400 people moved into the Turner Agri-Civic Center, a large arena complex where stage shows and agricultural events were held. Charley brought winds of 145 mph or more to Charlotte. Those winds were about 110 mph when they struck DeSoto.

Inside the Turner arena—yes, named for the same family that owns most of DeSoto and donated the land for the center—a noise began to become audible. A banging noise. Soon, light could be seen at the top of the east wall. The roof was lifting, dropping. The winds were ripping it off.

Officials ordered everyone to the west side of the building, where they huddled in darkened hallways and bathrooms and closets as the east wall collapsed. As winds died, they were herded into school buses and taken across the street to DeSoto High School. Miraculously, no one was injured or killed in the arena.

Elsewhere, two county residents had died in the hurricane, and almost every home and business had damage. Residents put in claims for damage, and those claims actually topped 100 percent of the houses, since some addresses had more than one family.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency began setting up mobile homes and, at the peak of the crisis, had about 1,400 DeSoto families in temporary trailers. That's more than one-tenth the families in the county. Two large FEMA parks were opened. Like other parks, these became cesspools of crime. Relationships dissolved. Drugs ruled. Each was a concentration camp for victims.

The citrus industry took a terrible blow from Charley. About half the green fruit on trees was ripped off by winds. Some trees were toppled. Irrigation systems burst from the grove soil. Bee hives were scattered. Branches lay fractured. But the worst enemy was unseen. Citrus canker, borne on Charley's winds, swept into Charlotte County for the first time in the current epidemic and spread widely in DeSoto County.

Soon, new canker discoveries were being made in all parts of the county.

The state brought in bulldozers to uproot the trees and drag them into large piles where they were burned. The fragrant funeral pyres dotted the horizon in all directions. Scenic acres of orange groves became barren fields overnight. Money to pay growers for the rampant destruction was not forthcoming.

A second citrus disease, even worse than canker, was found last year in two South Florida locations. Within months, Sarasota had a tree with greening and DeSoto had two discoveries. There is no cure. And greening kills infected trees.

When growers gather for lunch at Brenda Lee's in downtown Arcadia, where the walls are signed by visitors and people can buy "I signed the wall at Brenda Lee's" T-shirts and caps, the conversation is not about yields or profits, but about tree health.

"I saw some funny leaves today," one grower will say. "I'm hoping it's not what I think it is."

Everyone eats at Brenda Lee's, you know. It's not unusual to see the county agricultural agent, the school superintendent, some ministers or a county commissioner or two eating there. You order and pay at a counter and then the food is prepared, your name is shouted out, you raise your hand, and someone brings it to you.

Brenda Lee's front window was blown out by Charley, but the faithful came through a back door in the alley to have lunch the next day. The cooks showed up for work.

Nowadays, canker and greening are still concerns for growers, but development pressures have joined the list. Some groves would be worth more sprouting houses than growing grapefruit. And the kind of money changing hands now is certainly tempting. Even the most poorly located land can bring $25,000 to $30,000 an acre.

On all major highways in DeSoto, you can see "For Sale" signs fronting productive orange groves.

We're the next big thing, after all. The signs promise that. Buy me, they beckon. I'll never be cheaper.

DeSoto did enjoy a brief real estate boom after Charley, but the bubble burst a year later. During that post-Charley year, housing became overpriced and new construction halted. Existing homes commanded high sale or rental prices. The inflationary boom couldn't —and didn't—last. Prices haven't settled back to match increases in salaries yet, but buyers rule now.

Still, Cowtown don't come cheap. Today's reality is that your dream of owning five acres, a pond and a horse in the country will probably cost you $200,000—and the dwelling will be a mobile home. A real house (not a big one, either) on paved roads with five fenced acres is more like $500,000. A bargain for east coasters, we're told.

Get it now because that kind of rural tranquility is only temporary. We're destined for sprawling subdivisions and jam-packed highways. It's coming within the next decade, we're assured. Growth will move up from Babcock Ranch and over from Port Charlotte.

We are, we're told, positively and without question, the next big thing.

Can you believe that? Makes me wish I owned some rundown riverfront property.

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