March 1, 2024 7:00am

PBC Governmental Center

A majority of Power Poll Palm Beach influencers like the idea of moving Palm Beach County’s government headquarters out of downtown West Palm Beach to the area west of Interstate 95 around Palm Beach International Airport.

Photo of Joe Capozzi
By Joe Capozzi
Palm Beach, FL Correspondent
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A majority of Power Poll Palm Beach influencers like the idea of moving Palm Beach County’s government headquarters out of downtown West Palm Beach to the area west of Interstate 95 around Palm Beach International Airport.

Our latest poll was timely. It started Feb. 27, the day county commissioners at a public workshop voiced interest in closely studying the idea of moving out of the 12-story Governmental Center, a 40-year-old downtown building in need of more than $120 million in renovations.

In a 50-minute discussion, commissioners didn’t reach a consensus on exactly where the county offices might go. But destination ideas included the low-income Westgate neighborhood around PBIA, the Vista Center complex off Okeechobee Boulevard west of Florida’s Turnpike, and a patch of downtown land now used as a parking lot immediately north of the existing county office building that opened in 1984.

The latest poll had a response rate of 33 percent, with most influencers supporting the idea of moving out of downtown, which in recent years has been plagued by chronic traffic and steep parking fees. Fifty-four percent said the offices should move to the Westgate area where residents would have easier access to county services and public meetings, while 41 percent disagreed.

“With 1.5 million people living in Palm Beach County, I think it's time to move the county's offices to a more reasonable and accessible location,’’ said Rolando Barrero, president of the Palm Beach County Democratic Hispanic chapter.

“Great to see Palm Beach County joining the 21st century,’’ said Sid Dinerstein, former chairman of the county’s Republican Party. “Not only is getting the county government out of downtown a good thing, but here are a few other thoughts: No working from home. The more you're paid the less you should be allowed to ‘telecommute.’ No more penny tax. No more unelected taxing districts.’’

But moving out of downtown and into new offices elsewhere won’t be cheap. Estimates for a new building range from $261 million to $276 million, not including land acquisition costs.

County officials have noted their current spot is among the most valuable pieces of downtown real estate. The proceeds of a sale could help pay for the new offices.

“There is no question that West Palm Beach has grown exponentially and no longer needs the governmental center to attract visitors to downtown,’’ said former Congressman Mark Foley. “The economics of a sale of the valuable downtown site can be a boost to county revenues…’’

Some influencers wondered if it makes more sense to renovate the Governmental Center, which won’t be cheap either. Estimates to renovate, an idea kicked around for several years, have ballooned from $76 million to $128 million, and a plan to renovate and expand the building could cost $160 million.

“The idea to move county offices to a suburb seems counterproductive,’’ said influencer Rick Rose of Palm Beach Vacation Rentals.

“Although redeveloping the downtown county site would be advantageous for downtown West Palm Beach, I fail to see the advantage for the county as a whole to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for new offices to perpetuate a dependency on cars,’’ he said. “At least in downtown, the county offices are walking distance to two train stations and other public transportation options available for county employees, not to mention restaurants, retail and other infrastructure within walking distance.’’

Influencer Jim Kovalsky, a computer consultant, said moving the county offices out of downtown has advantages for both West Palm Beach and the Westgate area.

“That (existing Governmental Center) space could be better used to increase the growth and vibrancy of downtown, while at the same time increasing the tax revenue for the city,’’ he said. “It is now a difficult location for the public to access needed services, and the move would also help the Westgate area and businesses in that location.’’

County officials also plan to consider establishing an airport car rental center that is directly connected to the airport, a proposal that would move the car rental center from its current location across the street from the airport along the north side of Belvedere Road just west of the Kennel Club. Fifty-seven percent of Power Poll influencers like that idea while 26 percent do not.

“The airport, while one of the country’s best, fails to properly utilize its footprint to make rental car access more streamlined and accessible,’’ Foley said.

Influencers were less enthusiastic about the idea of building a third hotel at the airport, with 45 percent in support, 28 against and 28 percent having no opinion.

“Focusing governmental center development west of I-95 is instrumental to the continued growth of Palm Beach County and keeping key resources accessible to all the citizens,’’ said influencer Aaron Wormus, author of the popular Guy on Clematis blog. “Bringing new entertainment centers, hotels and development closer to the Airport provides new opportunities which are away from the already crowded downtown West Palm Beach.’’

Some influencers suggested a focus on transportation improvements to relieve downtown congestion.

“It would make more sense to lower or raise one of the primary East/West roads, like Okeechobee Blvd or even Banyan, below or above the train tracks to relieve some of the traffic jams,’’ Rose said. “I generally don't think we should plan cities to accommodate cars. We should rather design communities which relieve a dependency on cars and promote walking and public transportation.’’

The three proposals, broached by commissioner Mack Bernard, come as Frisbie Group developers are planning to build a mixed-use village with 2,000 homes on the site of the Palm Beach Kennel Club, just north of the airport. Fifty-nine percent power influencers think the three proposals are related to the Frisbie Group plans, which commissioners are expected to consider this spring or summer, and 35 percent had no opinion.

“Whether or not these projects should be built is, unfortunately, the wrong question. We should be asking, instead, if the designs for these projects will perpetuate car dependency. If we’re serious about homelessness and housing affordability in general, car dependency is what we must agree to tackle,’’ said Timothy F. Hullihan, president of TFH Architectural Services.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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