It was supposed to be an event to discuss the annexation of South Apopka at the Apopka Community Center, sponsored by the City of Apopka and the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce. The agenda included figures and questions about the cost of annexation, but no numbers were ever discussed, and no questions from the agenda were answered.
No one from the City staff that attended the event spoke, including Mayor Bryan Nelson.
And although Chamber President/CEO Cate Manley opened the roundtable discussion and facilitated it, the agenda laid out was not followed. At this odd Tuesday morning event about annexing South Apopka, it was the voices of South Apopka that spoke loud and clear. And they spoke often, with purpose, and with passion.
Call it Tuesday Sounds.
Leroy Bell, the Chairman of the Apopka Area Concerned Citizens Council, and a candidate for the city commission in 2018, and 2020, was first to speak. Bell has been a vocal advocate for South Apopka over the years, and he reminded the group of South Apopka's origin, how it got where it is, and the blood, sweat, and tears it has invested.
"In South Apopka, everybody knows that this is a farm town, and the majority of the people here have paid for their homes in the most strenuous ways - picking oranges, working in the muck, and crawling around in the nurseries," said Bell. "I've been here since 1968, and nothing has gotten better."
Francina Boykin is the Vice President of the Apopka Historical Society, and a longtime Apopka resident. And as she has done many times at many events, she reminded the group about the history of the area - both north and south.
"I am a native of Apopka. I don't live in South Apopka. I live in Apopka - according to the postmaster," said Boykin. "I often ask a question 'How do you define South Apopka?' I see the little part carved-out area that the census says is a Census Designated Area. That came when we were begging for money for improvements in the area, and someone coined that term 'South Apopka'. That's the begging name."
She went on to explain conditions in South Apopka.
"We did not have garbage [service] until about the mid-80s. What we did on my side of town - we burned trash. I was born in Apopka as I said...I've seen what's happened. I see what's happening now. Because of economics, revenues, no infrastructure... over a century of neglect by Orange County. People pretty much did what they wanted to do. Build where they wanted to build. Most of the houses you see in unincorporated Apopka were moved there. A lot of those structures came from Holopaw - from the turpentine mill. A lot of little funny houses that all of you laugh at when you come through there... those houses were from the Naval Air Station in Sanford."
Hezekiah Bradford is the President of the South Apopka Ministerial Alliance and the Apopka Christian Ministerial Alliance. He has been in the fight to improve the conditions in South Apopka for many years but believes the City should show it's seriousness by improving the city-owned part of south Apopka first.
"I do believe we should have a conversation," said Bradford. "I think it's long overdue. I'm appalled to see what little work has been done from the railroad tracks to 10th Street. I think a lot more should have been done in that small area. I'm wondering if we annexed into the City as a whole, are we going to get the same treatment that we're getting already?"
Melissa Myers is the founder of the Ocoee-based non-profit Just Write but often serves in South Apopka. She too wanted to look past figures and look into the heart of the issue.
"It's kind of hard not to have emotion behind it," said Myers. "It's hard not to take things personally when you are seeing senior citizens in South Apopka not being taken care of. I'm from Ocoee. I shouldn't have to come to South Apopka to take care of senior citizens."
Myers also thinks that the conversation should be about the right thing to do, rather than the cost it would take to annex South Apopka.
"We talk about numbers. Screw the numbers. It's time to take care of humanity. We cannot continue to argue with each other. It's not solving anything. It's time to take care of one another. Whether it's Orange County or Apopka we need to do right by the citizens no matter what that looks like."
Clinton Stanley has also been a vocal advocate in South Apopka for years. He agrees with Myers about divisions among its advocates.
"As long as we're divided, nothing gets done," said Stanley. "If I've ever said anything to offend you with the truth, I might not be sorry, but I'm sorry. But let's figure it out. I can work with anybody to try and make a difference in my community. I will sit at the table and pour my heart out and let you people know what's needed in South Apopka."
Stanley's experiences with youth in South Apopka have him concerned for their safety and well-being.
"I'm 25 years in dealing with the kids of South Apopka. And I'm 25 years fed up with people that have the power to make decisions that just sit around and don't do it. For the past 25 years, nothing has gotten done. These kids are crying out for help... they're killing each other! They're crying for help. They need people to believe in them. The kids need us to figure it out. I've got nine and 10-year-olds carrying Glocks! It hurts. This has to stop."
Sylvester Hall is a Navy veteran and resident of Apopka since 2003. He made a plea to the leaders of Apopka to make the right choices as it applies to South Apopka.
"I'm concerned with the leadership," said Holmes. "I'm concerned with every one of us being hypocrites... being cowards, and not standing up and doing the right thing. We have forgotten to support each other. Annexing South Apopka is the morally right thing to do, regardless of what figures you come up with. I challenge everyone here to stand on their morals. Stand on your principles."
Near the end of the discussion, Manley reminded the group that because it was advertised as a 9:30-11 am event, the meeting would have to adjourn soon because of Sunshine Laws, and gave the city commissioners and elected officials a chance to speak.
Commissioner Doug Bankson was happy that the conversation had begun.
"Today, I'm really I'm excited because that's where it starts - the conversation," Bankson said. "You can't argue with emotion, but you can't follow emotion, it has to have its expression. And there's frustration, and I've had people angry with me. But once they got it out, they could talk and we got to the root of the problem. That's really what I'm interested in. That's why I got involved at this level. When I first was elected, I wasn't born here in the south. I was born in Southern California. Then we moved to Colorado. I just didn't have that dynamic. But I respected it when I came to understand that. Pastor Freddy Fillmore and I became very, very close friends. And he began to tell me what happened in our lifetime... that these were evil atrocities based upon race. How do we change this? It's got to start with a conversation. And all of us do our part. And it never seems to be enough. Because not one of us is the answer. It's all of us together."
Commissioner Kyle Becker agreed that a conversation needed to happen, but thought the next venue should be a place where decisions can be made.
"You have to build the right framework because too often people talk about conversations, but it goes beyond conversation," Becker said. "It has to take a natural, gradual path from the conversation, to analysis, to actionable items, to outcomes. And to Miss Boykin's point, that outcome may be different. It may be voluntary annexation, it may be annexation by ordinance. But for us to be able to tell the people in the area that we're talking about the value proposition of either one of those choices, you have to have a natural process by which you work through. And that's why I think those conversations should happen in City Hall... they shouldn't happen in the VFW, because that's where decisions are made. We have to have the people at the table in City Hall that have that voice. That way we do have actual incremental results. So I'm encouraged by the feedback today. It's right to have difficult conversations... it's right to have friction. But at the same time, it's right to have friction, and after the buzzer sounds, we come together and know that we're all fighting for the same cause."
Commissioner Diane Velazquez was unable to speak before the meeting was adjourned but did release a statement to The Apopka Voice, and during the February 16th City Council meeting.
"During the discussion, several residents were passionate in expressing their frustration, disappointment and the pain they feel from decades of hearing promises for change and improvements to their community," Velazquez said. "These residents feel their voices have not been heard or represented by the past or present administrations. With local elections once again in the forefront, the candidate forums brought to light the need to finally address this issue and begin a discussion on how to address the feasibility of annexation.
The Apopka area chamber of commerce initiated the first public meeting on short notice at the request of specific community residents from South Apopka. These members requested information about the position of each of the candidates regarding the annexation of the unincorporated Southside of Apopka. The discussion was led by several members of South Apopka’s community and pastors that each passionately shared their stance, their concerns, and suggestions as to how to move forward. With the election cycle coming into its last few weeks, I hope this conversation will continue and the next elected administration will commit and organize a community advisory committee with residents from the unincorporated Southside of Apopka and residents from the City of Apopka to address the annexation."
Commissioner Alexander Smith closed the meeting with his experiences in South Apopka, and his renewed call for annexation.
"In order to understand the fight, you have to have been there," said Smith. "My Grandfather had a third-grade education. My mom had a ninth-grade education, and my father had a sixth-grade education. My grandfather always told me that each generation preceded the next generation, and being a product of South Apopka, I've lived there and I've seen it. Now understand, I've worked in those greenhouses and the nurseries. I worked in the orange groves, I worked in the muck. And so I've been through all those things where I can relate to what's taking place. And it's always been my point that it doesn't matter about the balance."
He also reaffirmed what he said about annexing South Apopka despite the cost.
"When The Apopka Voice asked me if it cost 10 million dollars to annex South Apopka, would I annex. I answered yes... and I still stand by that because I don't think you can put a price on human life. It's the right thing to do. The City of Apopka has benefited greatly from the residents that live in South Apopka. Some of them are suffering financially, spiritually, and healthwise as a result of the contribution that they have made to the City of Apopka. It's the right thing to do. A lot of times, there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes that you can't see. Because unfortunately, sometimes when people see what you're doing, they put stumbling blocks in your way. And so there's a lot of work that's being done in order to make that happen. We just need to come together and all be on one page."
Manley sent The Apopka Voice a statement after the meeting, and also hoped the conversation would continue.
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