Art Is The Highest Form Of Hope

The wonderful Randy DelLago is a local example of how the arts touches generations.

About a month ago, the arts community was shocked when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $32 million in grants designed to support 663 cultural organizations in Florida.

The move was unexpected—at least by the arts community. With the stroke of a pen, Florida went from near the top of states to the bottom in terms of support for the arts.

In hindsight, maybe the veto shouldn’t have been surprising. Maybe, it’s time to listen and yes believe what some politicians say. That sentence sounds counterintuitive since trusting politicians is not something we are used to, but Gov. DeSantis did recommend $0 for the arts when he released his budget in December 2023.

But the arts community thought the “normal process” would restore funds. They were wrong.

When the veto was announced, I fielded a call from a wonderful journalist named Sharon Geltner who was writing an article for the Palm Beach Arts Paper about the cuts. Sharon wrote a great article about the issue that I recommend you read. Here’s a link: https://palmbeachartspaper.com/desantis-cuts-all-arts-and-culture-funding-in-florida-leaving-pb-county-in-shock/

I don’t want to write another piece about the cuts and the toxic politics that are driving things these days. I do want to go on record about the value of the arts.

In Sharon’s article, I talked about the arts as an economic driver and noted that with all the companies relocating to Palm Beach County there would be a need for a robust cultural scene. If we aspire to be a world class community—and I hope we do—we can’t be, if we don’t have world class cultural opportunities. The people who live here deserve it, the people who are coming here are going to demand it.

That’s why I am keeping a close eye on The Center for Arts & Innovation slated for Mizner Park in Boca Raton.

Over the past few years, I’ve had numerous conversations with founder Andrea Virgin and her vision is ambitious and compelling. I’m rooting for her. While the project has been billed as the new cultural hub for Boca, the Center’s impact transcends city borders.  If the Center succeeds it will have regional impact and could even be known internationally. It’s something worth rooting for.

For the record, the arts in Florida is big business–$39 billion in Florida and $335 million in Palm Beach County.

But there are intangibles as well.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about these days.

I believe the arts are what make us human. I believe the arts create empathy and we need more empathy in our world.

It’s art that endures. We will be talking about The Beatles, Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Dylan and Michelangelo as long as we walk the Earth.

In these divisive and dangerous times, it’s the arts that bring us together. We can all appreciate a great Chris Stapleton song, right?

And let’s not discount the empathy piece; cynics may refer to empathy as hokum, psychobabble or even hooey (I’ve always wanted to use the word hooey in a sentence, cross one off the bucket list).

But I’m going to posit that empathy is everything. If we sympathize and understand others, we have a chance to connect, we have a shot at progress.

If we see a play, watch a movie, read a book, listen to music, or visit an art museum we open ourselves to the possibility of seeing other perspectives and learning about new worlds.

New vistas shift our molecules and that’s a good thing.

To think the arts are just “fluff”, “extras” and something you fund only if your flush—well I don’t think so.

Yet, when we think of arts funding or arts education it’s often in the vein of being secondary to the “more important” stuff. What if there is nothing more important? What if it’s all important and we are challenged to find a way to teach trigonometry and music?

If you don’t think art can change the world well then… you’ve never heard the sax solo in “Jungleland”, you’ve never experienced the magic of the Crest Theatre when local musicians re-enacted “The Last Waltz” and you never walked among the plein air artists camped out on Atlantic Avenue and talked to them about what they see when they look at sights we pass every day.

Art matters. Art is the highest form of hope.

 

Speaking of the arts….we lost a local arts legend last week.

Randolph DelLago, who spent more than 40 years delighting audiences as the artistic director at the Delray Beach Playhouse passed away. He was 77.

Randy was a larger-than-life person. A wonderful entertainer with a booming voice and a style all his own.

After his long stint at the Delray Playhouse, Randy joined the Wick Theatre in Boca last year.

He was a theater legend, a true pillar who touched generations of performers who took to social media last week to share their appreciation.

He was also the man who gave me my first and only stage role, a walk-on role in “Scrooge” at the Delray Playhouse years ago. I played the mayor who walks across the stage and encounters Scrooge who fell on the ice. Mr. Scrooge extends his hand so I can pull him to his feet. I think about helping him, then walk past. It got a big cheer and I immediately retired. Best to go out on top, I figured.

Mr. DelLago will be missed. But his impact will live on.

Delray lost another legend with the passing of Dr. Lynda Hunter, the long time children’s librarian who retired in 2016.

For 31 glorious years, Lynda enchanted children with her storytelling and encouragement to read. My kids benefitted from Lynda’s magic and both became voracious readers, a habit that has lasted throughout their lives.

I adored Lynda. She helped when I was mayor and we launched a “Get Caught Reading” program. Her enthusiasm for books was unrivaled. Her love of children boundless.

In a social media post, the Delray Library summed up her legacy beautifully describing how generations of children flocked to her. The post described her warmth as a lasting legacy.

How true, how beautiful. Dr. Hunter was one of a kind. She will be sorely missed and always remembered.

 

 

 

The Last Days Of Federer

A can’t miss documentary whether or not you like tennis.

“There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over–and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.” -Ellen Goodman

“Every ending is a beginning. We just don’t know it at the time.” -Mitch Albom

Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”-L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

I watched the documentary “Federer: Twelve Final Days” twice in recent weeks.

Available on Amazon Prime, the emotionally charged documentary chronicles the last 12 days of Roger Federer’s storied tennis career.

Originally intended as a home movie, the film is intimate, inspiring, and poignant. The documentary sticks with you and makes you think about beginnings and endings and the stuff that goes between those bookends.

Roger Federer is one of the greatest players of all time—but he transcends sport and has become a global ambassador who exhibits class, grace, and sportsmanship.

In so many ways, he’s a singular figure: handsome, wildly talented, rich, a devoted husband and father who is beloved the world over. I can’t recall any controversy in his career or personal life. And yet, there’s something vulnerable about him too. That vulnerability is on full display in the documentary as we see a man forced by time and injury to give up a game he loves with all his heart.

Federer’s love of the game contrasts with other great players—Andre Agassi who wrestled with his feelings for the sport after being driven by an overzealous dad and Bjorn Borg who walked away from the game at age 26.

Borg features prominently in the Federer documentary—almost as a corollary to Roger’s experience. One left early and was troubled, the other leaves reluctantly and every bit as passionate for the game as he was as a young athlete.

Both Borg and Agassi played at the Delray Beach Tennis Stadium. I met Agassi briefly when he played the Delray Open near the end of his career. He seemed shy and reserved but he was an electric player with a ton of charisma. He made the stadium shake when he took the court.

The great ones make that kind of impact. They have a way of moving us.

Watching Roger Federer play tennis was sublime. He was graceful, powerful, hit remarkable shots and won a lot. But he was vulnerable too. He had rivals who beat him. He struggled with bad knees and ultimately age and wear forced him to quit. Father Time remains undefeated.

What I like about Roger so much is his candor. You can see the struggle, you can feel the disappointment he’s experiencing having to give up a game that shaped his life. He pledges not to be “a ghost” like some others who left the game. He’s open about his love for tennis and for his rivals too.

And his rivals respond in kind. Rafael Nadal weeps after Roger’s last match. Novak Djokovic does so as well.

Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t it life affirming to see rivals celebrate each other’s greatness?

When you’re young and on the rise, when you’re young and trying to figure it all out, you can’t see the end. Yes, you know it’s there, but you don’t really see it, you really don’t believe it until it stares you in the face.

Roger Federer went out in fine fashion—surrounded by adoring fans, grateful rivals, a loving wife and family and a world of opportunity in front of him.

Most of us won’t quite measure up to that high bar. The documentary made me think of people who quietly retire and transition to new lives without fanfare. The age of the gold watch seems like a quaint relic of a distant past. I know many fine people who just sort of….went away.

I’m at an age where I see both ends of the spectrum—young lions and lionesses on the way up and older friends slowing down. I enjoy spending time with the former, but I love spending time with the latter because they have the wisdom and the wounds that only experience can gift you.  They’ve travelled the road we’re all on.

If you care to watch the Federer documentary you will marvel at the footage of a sublime athlete, but you will never forget the grace of a fine human being wrestling with saying goodbye to a great love.

 

 

 

Pharmageddon And The Third Place

The iconic Huber Pharmacy.

Fortune Magazine ran a piece recently that has stuck with me.

The article talked about the death of the American pharmacy. A bit overblown perhaps, but intriguing nonetheless.

As the son of a retail pharmacist, I read the piece through a personal lens. I saw up close how important the neighborhood pharmacy is to the community. Losing that staple in the neighborhood is yet another example of a thread pulled with unexpected consequences.

The neighborhood pharmacy has been on the ropes for decades now—competition from chains, big box stores, online pharmacies and supermarkets squeezed the independents making them as rare as bismuth crystals. (Look it up, fascinating).

Sure, there are a few independents left—we have a few in Delray and Boca—but they are rare sightings in a world where Walgreens and CVS seem to fill every corner. While writing this blog, I learned of the permanent closing of the iconic Huber Pharmacy, a staple on Atlantic Avenue for decades.

But now the chain stores are having a meltdown as well.

Big chains are shutting down hundreds of locations creating a phenomenon known as “pharmacy deserts” which sadly seems to impact vulnerable populations the most. According to Fortune, in 2023 there were 4,550 fewer pharmacies than a decade ago. And the National Community Pharmacists Association said in February that several thousand more local pharmacies, up to a third of its members, could close this year.

We are not quite at that point in the Delray /Boca area, but I think it’s fair to anticipate that based on trends, we may see a few of our chain stores close.

My dad, long retired, but with a lot of experience in the field, has always wondered how so many stores could survive so close to one another. How could they be adequately staffed? Wouldn’t they begin to cannibalize each another?

I counted 9 CVS stores in Delray and 29 in Boca Raton. (I may be off a little, this was a cursory internet search), Walgreen’s has a similar footprint. That’s a whole lot.

In addition, pharmacists are under stress these days. There’s a term for this kind of burn out; it’s called “pharmageddon.”

Citing overwork and added responsibilities (vaccinations, flu shots etc.) pharmacists are fleeing the industry at an alarming rate.

All of this adds up to a lot an worrisome situation. Pharmacies and pharmacists are important front line health care assets, a critical part of our local infrastructure as we learned during the pandemic.

Competition, burn-out, recruiting issues, general challenges in the retail sector and relentless squeezing of profits by insurance middlemen are conspiring to pinch even the large chains.

And if the large chains are challenged to survive, how are the small pharmacies supposed to make it?

I find all of it sad.

Truth be told, I won’t be broken-hearted if we have a few less chain stores  although I would feel bad for the employees. But it’s the loss of the independent drug store that stings.

In typing that sentence, I realize I am part of the problem. I do shop occasionally at an independent, but it has been years since I’ve filled a prescription at a store that resembles my dad’s old Maple Pharmacy, which is still going strong in Smithtown, N.Y.

It’s not that I enjoy CVS or Walgreen’s, I find CVS’ lack of cashiers mystifying since I see people walk out of the store in frustration after being unable to scan items. What makes the chains alluring is the convenience—they are everywhere, even if that might be changing.

But I remember when we valued a relationship with our local retailer. I remember how my father and his partner knew every customer and how those customers trusted their advice and recommendations.

I did get to know my pharmacist at CVS until he disappeared one day. I hear that he’s back, but truth be told, I started using the drive through where I barely see anyone so I wouldn’t know.

Those micro relationships are important touch points. I used to know my teller at Truist, until they replaced her with a voice through a small microphone. She used to give my dogs treats, until one day she was gone. It made it easier for me to switch banks–I no longer had a relationship at Truist.

The neighborhood grocer was another fixture of a time long past. I think Trader Joe’s comes closest because their staff is friendly and helpful, a throwback to a more personal time.

Lately, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be an inordinate number of restaurants going out of business in our town. High rents, high costs of goods, difficulty finding employees, and tons of competition in a hard business leads to the loss of many staples. I will miss Cabana El Rey, I really enjoyed Zima and Christina’s is a major loss—it was a sweet place to meet friends for breakfast and lunch.

The common touchpoint was that all those places were independent and as a result we got to know the wait staff, the managers, the owners, and the bar tenders over the years. For example, I love the food at Papas Tapas, but I also enjoy waving to Papa who is always there with a smile.

Those kinds of interactions give a place soul.

And friends, we need a large dose of soul in our lives.

I find myself thinking a lot about what makes a place special. It always comes down to the unique threads that stir something inside of us. I find myself thinking about an author I admire who taught me that lesson.

Ray Oldenberg was an urban sociologist and a wonderful writer. He coined the term “third place” which referred to places where people spend time between home (first place) and work (second place). They are the places where we meet people, share ideas, have a good time and build relationships. When we lose those places—the barber shop, the diner, the coffee shop and yes, the pharmacy we lose a little of ourselves as well.

I’m working on a play about a third place. I have no idea how to write a play, but I am trying to capture what a third place can mean to a community. The joy is in the writing, the joy is in the connections we make. And the joy is finding those places where we can nurture our humanity in a world gone cold.

 

News and Notes

I was thrilled to see Esther Isaacs Williams win the Leadership Florida Distinguished Member Award a few weeks ago.

Esther is a wonderful community servant who has been involved for decades in Boca and Delray.

Here’s what Leadership Florida had to say about our friend.

“Ethel Isaacs Williams’ 30-year history of visionary leadership is positively changing communities on local, state, and international levels. She puts into action the principles that are the cornerstone of Leadership Florida. She currently serves as the elected president of The Links, Incorporated, an international not-for-profit corporation and one of the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer service organizations. It has over 17,000 members in over 300 local chapters. In Florida, there are 20 local chapters. The Links members provide over one million hours of documented community service annually. In the over 79-year history of the organization, Ethel is only the third Floridian to serve as an international president. Under her leadership, The Links have expanded national initiatives to include STEMReady, national mentoring for students, and expanded financial literacy programming.”

Congratulations and well done!

Have a safe and happy 4th. Happy birthday America.

A Wonderful Life


We lost former Delray Beach City Commissioner Bill Schwartz last week. He  passed one week after turning 100 which is one heck of a run.

Bill packed a lot into a century of life including leading troops into battle on D-Day.
He was generous in sharing his experiences and I just rewatched a Channel 5 story from three years ago about D Day that featured Bill sharing his memories with a large crowd at Sinai Residences. At age 97, Bill still commanded the room and charmed the TV reporter.
He was a kind man who lived a life of service.
We became friends when we served together on the Delray Beach City Commission. We only served one year together when Bill decided not to run for re-election but we remained friends meeting for periodic lunches and long talks at the old 5th Avenue Grill.
Bill was fascinated by politics, was an ardent supporter of Israell, was interested in business and was involved in a wide range of charitable activities.
In recent years, Bill kept in touch via  email. I was on his list and he emailed frequently   Bill shared his world views or interesting articles he came across.
It was comforting to know he was still out there thinking and caring about a range of topics.
I met Bill Schwartz close to 40 years ago when I was a reporter and he was active in an organization called PROD, which stood for Progressive Residents of Delray.
Progressive meant something different in those days. PROD was a civic group, probably the largest in town and their meetings were “musts” if you were a politician or a journalist.
Bill was VP of PROD and a gracious MC. He lived in Delaire and served on the Planning and Zoning Board.
When we worked together on the Commission his lovely wife Onalee became ill and you could see the toll it took on Bill’s face.
I remember that our commission and staff, tight knit at the time, tried our best to support Bill and his family.
Lots of time has passed since those days but I will always remember Bill fondly.
One particularly long evening, Bill noticed that I wasn’t feeling well. He asked me what was wrong and I told him I had a headache, a rarity for me.
The next day I received a series of emails from him with advice on how to cope with and prevent a headache.
I thought that was really nice of him. It was a simple gesture, but meaningful and classy. Very fitting for Bill.
I found that old email last week after I read his remarkable obituary.
My favorite Bill Schwartz story is when he shared an interesting experience that he had at a chain restaurant, I think it may have been Red Robin.
This particular chain decorated its walls with old photos of Army fliers. Bill saw a photo on the wall that looked familiar. Turns out it was him—taken at a flight school. There was Mr. Schwartz looking dapper in his flight suit and scarf.
Turns out that photo was used chainwide. Bill got a kick  out of that.
I’ll miss my old teammate. He was quite a guy.

Investing In Our Future

 

Note: Some of you may know that I’ve entered a new and exciting phase of my life/career working to build and grow the work of the Carl Angus DeSantis Foundation. For me and my teammates, this is a labor of love because Carl changed our lives and the lives of so many others. While we lost Mr. D last August, his work continues through his foundation. It’s the honor of a lifetime to be involved. Periodically, I hope to share what we’re doing because it’s important to spotlight some of the great work being done in our community. Our main focus is helping transformational leaders and programs in Palm Beach and Broward counties. We’ve only just begun.

Communities are ever-changing, that’s what makes them interesting.

People, businesses, leaders, and organizations come and go.

But it’s the pillars that stand the test of time.

It’s the pillars that build communities, quietly, effectively and over a long span of time.

The George Snow Scholarship Fund is one of those pillars. The Carl Angus DeSantis Foundation is honored to partner with this wonderful non-profit to build a better future for our youth.

Recently, we announced a $200,000 gift to the Snow Fund. The monies will support a new program we’re calling “DeSantis Scholars”—which will enable students to pursue vocational education in fields such as nursing, HVAC, electrical, plumbing and more. The scholarships were handed out over the weekend at an event at Lynn University’s magnificent Wold Performing Arts Center.

Mr. DeSantis, who briefly attended Florida State University but did not complete his degree, believed that students who wanted to pursue careers that didn’t require college should be encouraged to do so.

We’re pleased to have a partner like George Snow to help make that happen.

Since 1982, the non-profit has given about $26.4 million in scholarships to local students looking to improve their lives. That’s an astounding number. The Snow Foundation is making a profound difference in the lives of our young people.

Through the decades, the Boca Raton-based Snow Fund has been there for students in Palm Beach County. Recently, the fund was invited to help students in Broward, a testament to their reputation as stellar scholarship administrators.

We’ve had our eyes on the George Snow Fund for some time. It’s hard to miss their impact:

  • 2,943 scholarships since 1982.
  • 887 Snow Scholars currently enrolled in college.
  • Almost $5 million awarded in 2023.

 

But their effectiveness goes beyond the numbers: 90 percent of Snow Scholars graduate compared to 62 percent nationally. Many of those scholars come back home and benefit our local community.

So, we were thrilled to partner with such a pillar of the community. We were especially taken by the holistic thinking at the Snow Fund. Students receive inspirational messages to start their week, there are webinars that teach the “soft skills” needed to succeed and scholars receive care packages as well.

It’s been a remarkably effectively model, honed over 42 years by a leadership team led by President Tim Snow.

When you meet Tim and  Development Director Jay Brandt you are swept away by the passion they bring to the cause. For Tim, the son of George Snow, the mission is personal. But he has managed to infuse that passion into a dedicated team and board that have created a family of scholars.

“When you receive a scholarship from the George Snow Scholarship Fund, you become a part of our family. You can count on us to help you in anyway we can,” says Tim.

And help they do: from career development advice, college physicals, an emergency fund for unexpected needs, to laptop computers and mental health counseling Snow Scholars are cared for like family.

Did we mention senior portraits? How about “the scholar closet” to help the budget conscious find free clothing and shoes? There’s also the “Snow Family Network”, a unique social networking platform where Scholars and Snow Alumni can connect and help each other find jobs and internships.

That’s the “wow” factor we look for at the Carl Angus DeSantis Foundation.

We are thrilled to begin this important partnership. Mr. DeSantis would be proud.

 

 

Heroes & Grace

Watching the ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day was a deeply moving experience.

To see the last members of the Greatest Generation back in Normandy fills your heart with pride and gratitude.

This level of service and sacrifice defies description. Thank goodness for these people. We are a free people because of their heroism.

Over the weekened, I listened to an interview about D-Day with retired four-star Admiral James Stravridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.

Adm. Stravridis is a remarkable man and has a unique way of explaining complex global affairs.

But on this day, he talked about why it’s important to thank people who serve.

“Those of us in the military really appreciate when people say, ‘thank you for your service’,” he said. “It’s meaningful. But we should also thank everyone who serves. That includes teachers, police, firefighters, and others who serve the community.”

That’s a simple and reasonable request. But a powerful one too.

I thought about Admiral Stravridis’ words and realized that we don’t often take the time to say thank you to those who serve.

There’s a crisis in law enforcement–an inability to recruit– in large part because people feel police work is a thankless job.

Same with teaching and a whole host of fields ranging from nursing and the fire service to government employees who are often viciously maligned and threatened.

It’s a doom loop and it’s hurtful. Criticism and condemnation–especially if it’s unwarranted and mean-spirited leave lasting scars.

People who go into public service are not seeking to get rich. You simply can’t get rich in these fields. They are searching for something deeper, they want to make a difference, they long to serve, they want to help and therefore they find “riches” in ways that can’t be measured.

But even the biggest hearts have a limit. If the costs outweigh the benefits, people will find other ways to spend their years.

We humans have a need to feel respected. We want to be seen and appreciated. It costs us nothing to do so.

I’ve been blessed to know many public servants. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, veterans, those that work for nonprofits and a range of others folks who serve us in all sorts of ways.

I lived next door to two boys who grew up to be Marines. I saw them go from little guys playing video games in my house to young men willing to die for their country—just like the D-Day veterans. That level of commitment is to be celebrated, venerated, spoken about, and honored.

That celebration, that respect starts right here at home.

When I see officers or firefighters around town—I stop to say thank you and to share my wish that they stay safe. It’s a dangerous world that they inhabit every time they step out the door.

I also think our thanks and appreciation should extend—like Admiral Stravridis suggests—to all who serve.

As such, we have a teachable moment in Delray Beach right now.

I don’t watch City Commission meetings. But after receiving a bunch of texts about the June 4 meeting, I decided to put it on as background noise while I worked.

Commissioner Rob Long started a conversation about the opaque process to find a group to help get Old School Square’s theater and classrooms going again. Commissioner Long objected to an allegation made at another meeting that the nonprofit that created Old School Square and did a damn good job for decades was under FBI investigation.

It’s just not true.

The truth is there has been no coherent process to replace the nonprofit that built Old School Square and nurtured it for 32 years. It is just a muddled mess, which has compounded the poor and expensive decision to boot the group without a plan.

What transpired was a shrill and embarrassing discussion that further sullied the reputations of valued community servants who gave their time, talent, and treasure to this city for 30 plus years. These people really took a beating, it was unnecessary and undeserving. A majority of the commission didn’t look good  in adminstering the beat down. We can do better.

But the point here is not to re-litigate the Old School Square mess. It’s to point out, that nowhere in this disaster have we found it in our hearts to slow down, stop for a moment, and give thanks to community volunteers.

Instead, we have treated some of our best citizens as if they are criminals. They are not.

Nobody is perfect, and mistakes were made and owned, despite what is being said by people who ought to know better. But when people talk past each other we don’t get anything but hurt.

Mercifully, what’s left of the Old School Square nonprofit wrote a letter the next day to the City Manager saying no more. Inexplicably, the manager had written to the group asking if they still had interest in providing those missing classes and theatre programming. The letter was a joke. Not a funny one either.

But the larger point is we have spent years denigrating, disrespecting, and spreading lies about a group that has brought immeasurable benefits to our town.

The only acknowledgment of that contribution came from Commissioner Angela Burns.

As a result, I wrote her a note of thanks. Mr. Long should also be commended for trying to inject some sense into this topic. He tried to address the false allegations but all it did was unleash another round of hurt.

We need leadership that says thank you. We need a society that doesn’t play gotcha, that seeks to solve, not destroy.

Old School Square was not a perfect organization. Nobody is perfect. But the nonprofit did good things, many good things for a long time.  Our city government has screwed up plenty over the years too. But our local government has also done some amazing things. Accountability is essential, but so is kindness. You can have both. Sometimes it takes courage to stop the cycle of recrimination. It takes leadership to recognize that a community needs to heal and move on.

The Greatest Generation set the example of all examples when they saved the world from monsters and then set about rebuilding the post-war world order.

By comparison, what we deal with locally should be easy. Make no mistake, there is no equivalency between D-Day and the petty personal politics we deal with at home and in Washington D.C.

Still, there are examples we can use from history to build a better world.

We can start with five words: thank you for your service. But you have to mean it. You have to really mean it.

 

America…

General Thomas

I spent a long weekend in Washington D.C. a few weeks back.

Our family gathered to celebrate my nephew’s graduation from American University. Andrew earned a doctorate in history with a specialization in antisemitism. Sadly, it’s a timely degree, but it’s also sad because his area of study seems perpetually relevant. We can’t seem to shake the disease of hatred in our land and in our world.

On the plane ride to our nation’s capital, I read “Democracy Awakening” by the historian Heather Cox Richardson. The book chronicles the long struggle in America to live up to the Founder’s ideals that “all men are created equal.”

Since America’s birth, women, Blacks, Jews and just about every ethnic group and sexual persuasion and identity have struggled for equal rights and opportunities.

Yet there’s hope.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Indeed.

Change takes a long time, but it does happen. Still, the struggle seems to be endless and at times despairing.

I have friends of every political persuasion—Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, liberal, conservative, moderate, center left and center right. Every one of them is despairing about the state of our nation–I am too. I’ve never been more worried about our future than I am right now. So, when I flew to Washington it was with a degree of trepidation. We were heading to a graduation ceremony, would there be unrest? Would we be safe?

The campus of American University was calm. We felt safe on a beautiful Spring Day in the capital. American is a beautiful school, the campus is stunning and full of flowers in bloom. It was idyllic.

As we traversed the city, I felt my patriotism awakening. I literally felt it.

Seeing the Washington Monument, visiting the astonishing National Gallery of Art and reveling in the majesty of Embassy Row, I felt immense pride.  America is a beacon for the world. We have accomplished so much and none of it came easy.

Indeed, you can feel the struggle, and the miracle that is America when you are in Washington. You can feel the heartbeat of this country beating on the streets of our capital city.

Washington D.C. sure takes a beating, and yes there is crime, homelessness, and violence but there is a whole lot of beauty and accomplishment in this city as well.

Washinton has been called a swamp and Congress and our inane politics certainly deserve condemnation. Our leadership is not serving America and that is why we don’t feel good or safe these days.

It’s hard to deny that reality. We are broken and actively breaking and that will continue until ‘we the people’ decide we’ve had enough of the clown show. There is so much good in this land, so much potential, so much more we can do–together.

Examples of American excellence and possibility can be found everywhere you look—especially in Washington D.C.

For instance, you can’t visit a Smithsonian Museum and not come away in awe.

Washington is a city that aspires, like our nation. You can see it in the architecture, the beautiful buildings, the magnificent churches, and the majestic statues.

I was particularly drawn to a statue of Major General George Henry Thomas, a Civil War hero located in the center of Thomas Circle. It was sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward and dedicated in 1879 at a ceremony attended by President Rutherford B. Hayes, three other Civil War era generals and thousands of soldiers.

There are 18 Civil War monuments in Washington D.C. One day I’m going to see them all.

Today, the Civil War still resonates, I think in part because we fear the possibility of another one. That’s an astonishing sentence to write, but the visceral hatred between political sides is real and palpable. And I felt it even more in Washington.

It wasn’t that I witnessed anything—except for a barrage of nasty political ads on TV—it’s just that the Civil War is all around you in D.C. There are the statues, there’s Arlington Cemetery built on the former plantation of Robert E. Lee, there’s the Lincoln Memorial and there are signs for Richmond, the one-time confederate capital which is only 108 miles away.

It’s a lot to absorb and the feelings you get in Washington are complicated and paradoxical, much like the feeling of being American in 2024. There’s immense pride but concern, there’s a feeling of strength and vulnerability and there is a confidence in our greatness but a gnawing worry about seeing it unravel because of the divisions in our society.

Lincoln’s words resonate across the centuries: “A House Divided Will Not Stand.”

I’m of the belief that most Americans don’t want to risk the greatest nation in the history of the world. But I am also of the belief that our political leaders are mostly horrible—and that cuts across both parties.

We have so degraded politics, that our best minds are avoiding service at all levels of our government. We, the people, are paying the price. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are exceptions not the rule and that’s my point. We must do better or we will continue to pay a steep price.

That said, America is sure worth fighting for. It’s a remarkable country and an essential one too.

We are the most generous nation on earth, if disaster strikes anywhere you can count on America to help. The greatness of this nation can fill the Grand Canyon.

But…we are not a sure thing.

We are an experiment. Everything we have built, everything that was fought for can slip away from us if we don’t right the ship.

Everyone has a prescription for how to do that. I’m no different. I think the key is compromise, we must learn to work together, or we will surely perish together.

But in a nation where compromise has become a dirty word, that’s going to be hard. But I sure hope we find a way forward.

We must.

Kerry and Perry…

Wishing my good friends Kerry Koen and Perry Don Francisco the happiest of birthdays. These exceptional men have shaped me in more ways than I can count. Kerry, former fire chief in both Boca and Delray, has become a touchstone for me long after we stopped working together in 2007. I respected Kerry as a chief, he was a great leader, and he built an amazing Fire Department. Kerry is one of those steady leaders, he’s not flashy by any means, but he’s effective and he’s strategic. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and he’s been generous in sharing that knowledge. We have great conversations and I cherish them. He always makes me think about subjects differently. His perspectives challenge you and if you lean in and listen you get a master class in leadership and life.

Perry is similar, but with a very different personality. I laugh and learn when I’m with Perry, the legendary former proprietor of Boston’s on the Beach. Perry has done so much over the years for so many—quietly without fanfare and with great sensitivity regardless of the situation. He’s the guy you want next to you in the foxhole if life gets messy. But he’s also the guy you want to grab a beer with and laugh. Like, Kerry, Perry sees the big picture often before anyone else does. He’s been a fixture in the lives of countless people. I wish them both many years of health and happiness.

 

 

Some Gave All

We don’t know them all, but we owe them all.” – Unknown. A fitting thought for Memorial Day.

This week’s post will be a little different.

My company, CDS International Holdings, has done a lot of different things over the years—real estate, restaurants, vitamins, men’s clothing, hotels, eco-tourism resorts, beverages (Celsius), retail ventures and the list goes on.

Our founder, the late Carl DeSantis was a visionary and a lifelong entrepreneur. He kept a note pad next to his bed because he’d wake up with an idea and he was afraid he would forget it if he didn’t write it down. I have a desk drawer full of his notes—some of which we converted into businesses.

One of his brainstorms became Tabanero, a sauce company that creates and manufactures an array of delicious sauces and rubs. CDS and the Tabanero team are committed to building a brand that we hope can be the next Celsius, which went from a small company to a global phenomenon with a market cap of over $20 billion.

For Carl, it wasn’t about the money. Carl loved the game. Could we create something that would transform the marketplace.

He did it at Rexall Sundown, where he changed the game for vitamins and nutrition. Celsius certainly upended the energy drink space grabbing market share from giants such as Red Bull and Monster.

With Tabanero, he set his sites on what he thought was a tired hot sauce category. The idea evolved into being more of a company dedicated to a variety of sauces that could add pizzazz to anything we may eat.

That’s how visionaries think and more importantly act—Carl was a man of action. We went from idea to execution quickly.

Anyway, Tabanero was something he cooked up and a talented team is giving this brand its best shot.

This Memorial Day, the Tab team is donating online sales to benefit a Marine who lost his life to cancer. I thought I’d share this effort.

Here’s the letter from the team:

“During this Memorial Day weekend, Tabañero is taking a moment to honor the sacrifices of military service members who were also leaders in the tight-knit rugby community.

This year, we are supporting the family of Sgt. Ben Williams, USMC, a courageous marine who recently ended his fight with cancer directly linked to his services in the Gulf War.

He was a loving father and leader of his community, profoundly touching the lives of those around him.

In tribute to Sgt Ben Williams, Tabañero is committing 100% of all sales made through our website on Memorial Day to his family. All Tabañero website purchases made on Monday, May 27 — Memorial Day —  will directly support the Williams family, ensuring his legacy of bravery and sacrifice continues.

Join us on Memorial Day to honor Sgt Ben Williams, USMC and all who have served our country with honor and distinction. Together, let us express our gratitude for their service and sacrifice.

Thank you for standing with us,

The Tabañero Team”

Below is a link. If you are interested, today is the day. We hope to raise significant funds for Sgt. Williams’ family.

Have a safe Memorial Day. Please remember those who gave all.

https://tabanero.com/collections/shop-all

Here’s some more about Sgt. Williams.

  Sergeant Ben Williams served with dedication in the United States Marine Corps and was actively involved in his community. He passed away in February 2024 from pancreatic cancer, which was linked to his exposure to oil well fires and burn pits during the Gulf Wars. In addition to his military service, Sergeant Williams was deeply involved in the rugby community, coaching the Lady Cavaliers Rugby team and playing for the Old Breed Rugby Club, fostering a welcoming environment for every player. His influence extended beyond the field, helping students gain admission to prestigious colleges through their involvement in rugby.

Nick Bursey, Director of Coaching and Operations for the Pleasanton Cavaliers Rugby Club, expressed his admiration, saying, “Everyone should have someone like Ben in their life.”

The shared values of the military and rugby communities drive Tabañero’s initiative. Several Tabañero team members, who are rugby players, see this as a meaningful way to honor military families. The collaboration with military rugby organizations highlights the close-knit nature and commitment to support within these communities.

Bobby Linder, Chief Operating Officer of Tabañero and a retired military veteran emphasized the shared values of the military and rugby: “On the battlefield or rugby pitch, we rely on the same core values. We will never accept defeat, we will never quit, and we will never leave a comrade behind. We ask you this Memorial Day to reflect on our freedom earned by our military service members and take the opportunity not just to say thanks  but to give thanks.”

Photographs & Memories: Spring Cleaning Edition

Back before Frances Bourque had a vision of what could be.

We are deep in the midst of a massive Spring Cleaning at my house.

The task: cleaning out a garage that contains 50 plus years of memories.

The reward: I’m making room for a long coveted “mancave,” you know a place where I can disappear with my music, my books and my two four-legged companions, Emmitt and Gracie.

The prospect of getting a space of my own has finally prompted me to go through box after box of things I have saved since childhood.

Class pictures—I still got them.

Old Sports Illustrated magazines—there they are.

Letters from friends—I have a collection.

There are baseball cards, greeting cards from my late mom (I’m keeping those), yearbooks, stray photos from back when used film and old work evaluations where I would advocate for a 35-cent raise (I kid you not, journalism was not a lucrative field, especially when I was in the biz.)

I also have a slew of plaques, newspaper clips—those that have my byline and stories that covered my brief foray into local politics and some business ventures I’ve had over the years.

It’s a lot.

My much better half has been after me for years to throw stuff out. Saying no to Diane takes effort, but that’s a request I’ve managed to dodge since 2003. Until now.

I’m not saying it’s easy to toss memorabilia away, but I’ve come to the realization that nobody is going to want my…what’s a nice word for….oh I got it… detritus.

And besides there’s a reward coming—that mancave which I imagine will include a comfy recliner, great speakers and a mini-fridge stocked with cold craft beer. If some of that beer includes the words grapefruit it will be even better because nobody will be around to poke fun at my taste. For the record, the beer I like does not come with a little umbrella in the mug.

Now, rest assured I’m not throwing away everything. I am keeping the meaningful stuff…Yankee and Met autographs from Spring Trainings gone by, ticket stubs to E Street Band shows and a letter I got from Libby Wesley, one of my civic heroines.

The rest is going to the recycle bin—I wonder if the good people at the Solid Waste Authority are puzzled as to why newspapers from the 1980s are suddenly showing up at their facility. P.S. Those old Monday-Thursday Papers were so good. I worked with talented people. (We were making $8 an hour, but we did good work and had lots of fun.)

Anyway, every box I open is a trip back in time.

For instance, my friends wrote me letters in college. Can you imagine that!? These were 18 and19-year-old guys and gals putting pen to paper, finding a stamp and an address and putting their thoughts in the mail because it was cheaper than a long distance call.

I miss those days.

The boxes mark distinct parts of my life: childhood, the teenage years, college, first real job, first marriage, kids, newspaper writing, my first business, my adventure in local politics, a new start with Diane, more kids, trips, Atlantic Ave magazine, my time at Celsius, my life now at CDS International Holdings and more. Every box I open comes with a heavy dose of memory, a sense of place and time, people who have come and gone from my life and lessons learned—often the hard way through the years.

Yes, it’s just stuff. But it’s also something more. It’s the reminders of a life, a story told in chapters still being written.
It has been fun to visit, and I’ve learned a lot about who I used to be and where I’ve been.

Recently, I had a wonderful lunch and conversation with my friend Pastor Bill Mitchell of Boca Community Church. Bill is the creator of City Lead and now World Lead and he has become a touchstone, someone I enjoy learning from.

We met just after he took a recent trip to Africa and I hung on every word that he shared about his experience, especially the stories about Zimbabwe and his amazing efforts to work with emerging leaders in places like Malawi and Zambia.

I, of course, shared my saga of cleaning the garage.

(I said we were friends, not equals).

Anyway, I shared that every box I open seems to contain a gift aimed at making sense of my life, where I am as I approach age 60.

This upcoming birthday is a poignant one for me and many of my friends who are also turning the big 6-0.

One on hand, we are better than we’ve ever been, able to access decades of experience as we navigate life’s challenges. But on the other hand, we are getting older. I feel it when I get up from my desk and I need a few steps to loosen up and I see it when I’m on Zoom calls and I’m looking at guys I grew up with who have lost their hair if not their youthful sense of humor. When I see myself in the mirror, I often cringe and wonder who that old guy is staring back at me. Resting Jeff face is a thing.

Yet, I’m thankful for it all. Every line, every gray hair.

And I’m grateful  because my spring cleaning is helping me figure things out. One week, I found a letter—unsigned—from someone I met with at The Village Academy who predicted a bright future for me.

“Someday you’ll do important things,” the author wrote. For the life of me, I can’t remember who wrote this beautiful letter, but I thought enough to save it.  I rediscovered the letter at a time when I have contemplated whether I should slow down and retire or continue a path that is leading me toward important philanthropic work.

I saw the letter as a sign and Pastor Mitchell agreed. And he shared with me how you can both slow down and smell the roses and do the most important work of your life.

At this age, we have knowledge, he explained. We will give that knowledge away—and our choice is to give it to the wind or to share it with others doing meaningful work.

Put that way, it’s a no-brainer to stay engaged but to focus on the signal and cut out the noise.

Similarly, I shared with my friend that on what would have been my mother’s 85th birthday, I happened to pick out a box that contained a whole lot of mom—photos, letters, cards, all of which reminded me of this remarkable person that I was lucky to have in my life for 34 years.

I think of my mother all the time. Every single day, multiple times a day.

But I thought it interesting that of all the boxes remaining to be sorted through, it was her box that I found by happenstance on her birthday.

I thought the “find” was pure poetry.  I look for serendipity and it’s gratifying when I find it.

My lunch companion, so wise and so wonderful, enjoyed the story but quoted T.S. Eliot to remind me of the real meaning of what may be at work in this instance.

Everyone cleans out boxes from their garage at one point or another, but not everyone may be present enough to appreciate what they discover.

As Eliot put it: “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”

I think it’s important to have both, to be present in our day to day because if we are—if we pay attention– we will find meaning each day.

So, clean your garage and travel back in time. Experience the meaning. Eat lunch with those who can quote Eliot and tell you about their amazing work all over the world.

And please never stop making more memories. Let’s find the meaning in our experience.

Trying to Make Sense of Density

Worthing Place

Note: I’ve been involved with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) for close to 20 years now. It’s a wonderful organization with chapters throughout the world dedicated to real estate and land use. Over the years, I’ve been asked to work with ULI panels to help cities navigate issues and seize opportunities. I’ve had a chance to work in places like Winter Park, Tamarac, West Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale. Recently, the City of Deerfield Beach engaged ULI in a community wide discussion about density. I thought I’d share my talk since it focused on our experience with the “D” word in Delray Beach.

 

The story of density in my hometown Delray Beach can be told through the saga of one project: Worthing Place which is located on Atlantic Avenue in the heart of our downtown. My hope tonight is that the Delray story—what worked and what didn’t– can offer you some insights that might help your city as you move forward.

Worthing Place is a 6- story, 60-foot tall apartment building with some restaurants and shops on the ground floor. It is set back from the street and sits behind a small pocket park which has become a lively space to watch the hustle and bustle of a very busy downtown.

It features 217 units on about 2.4 acres, which works out to roughly 90 units per acre, or three times the current density allowed in our downtown.

The Delray Beach CRA assembled the property in the mid-90s with a goal of creating a mixed-use project that would replace blight with vibrancy. We believed that housing was an essential component to jumpstarting a downtown that had shown some signs of life after a very rough decade in which we experienced 40 percent vacancy and virtually no nightlife. You could have gone bowling on Atlantic Avenue in the 80s and not hit anything.

 

The RFP was awarded to a team of experienced local developers who agreed to build a public parking garage before breaking ground on the apartments and retail. That offer, to build a garage benefiting the public before building apartments, was seen as a key to the winning bid.

But the size of the project—it’s height and density—split the town into two warring factions.

The project was approved and the city was immediately hit with lawsuits that prevented the project from moving forward. The developers built the garage—as promised, but litigation meant that they could not build the actual project.

When I was elected in 2000, the commission I served on inherited the lawsuits—I believe there were six or seven of them—but we also inherited the division over growth and development that this project ignited in our city.

Delray Beach is a very special place—we guard our charm and strive to maintain the brand of being a village by the sea.

We don’t allow tall buildings, but we do fight over 3 and 4 story buildings and density is a very, very touchy subject.

Mindful of these dynamics and wanting to unify the community after the tough fight over Worthing Place, we decided as a city commission to bring the community together and create a downtown master plan.

We did a massive public awareness campaign to get as many stakeholders to the table for a series of charettes or public meetings where we could brainstorm, draw, share and learn together. Our goal was to plan for a sustainable downtown that managed to be vibrant while being respectful of property rights as well as the look and feel our town.

Our tagline for the effort was “Keeping the Charm” and that was the goal.

Mind you, that’s not an easy task for a city…my idea of charm or of a village by the sea may be very different from my neighbors. Some may want a vibrant, bustling village and others may want a sleepy village. But we tried to work together as a community to come up with a consensus vision and policies to preserve, protect and enhance our downtown.

We produced a large document…but if I had to boil it down to a single theme it would be this: “Design matters more than a random density number.” In cities, we often get hung up on dwelling units per acre. We should be thinking about how projects fit in to the fabric of our communities.

In the master plan process, we learned that density was needed to provide housing opportunities for people who wanted to live downtown, we learned that if we wanted mom and pop businesses to survive, we needed a certain amount of density to support those businesses and we learned that density was better than sprawl in terms of the environment.

But the key message was the importance of design and scale…new development needed to be attractive and ideally enhance the charm and character of our downtown.

What I’m describing is a great aspiration.  But it can be hard to achieve because design is subjective.

We came away from the Downtown Master Plan process unified—at least among the few hundred who showed up to participate. But when you have 65,000 people, a few hundred, while good, is not enough to sustain an effort to shape your downtown. So, we worked hard to promote the plan, to educate the public on why density– done well– was important for our community.

And for a while we succeeded.

The city won all the lawsuits relating to Worthing Place and the project got built. It was supposed to be the first mixed-use housing project downtown, but the litigation delayed things and it ended up being among the last to be built.

Many other projects— not nearly as tall and certainly not as dense— were built. There has been a massive amount of public and private investment. And it has paid off.

Downtown Delray has become a regional attraction, with over 100 restaurants, tens of thousands of weekly visitors and a very low vacancy rate.

But success comes with challenges.

Rents have increased from $5-$7 a square foot when I moved here in 1987 to as high as $165 a square foot for prime restaurant space. It’s difficult for mom-and-pop businesses to pay the rent.

When you experience success, it’s not uncommon to want to try and ratchet things back.

So, after I was termed out, a subsequent commission lowered the height limit to 54 feet, 35 feet on the avenue itself, and capped density at 30 units to the acre in most of downtown Delray. There are a few places in town where you can exceed that amount, but by and large density has been capped.

You don’t tend to cap things that you view as virtuous. If density was popular, it would be encouraged not capped. Besides, our language has changed—instead of encouraging density in strategic places to achieve civic goals, we are warning developers about density.

After spending a lot of time, money and effort trying to sell the virtues of density and great design—we stopped engaging residents on these topics and now every election cycle is about the evils of growth and development. We no longer talk about smart growth or good development; we only seem to talk about traffic and whether we have lost our charm.

Density has become a dirty word in a town that used it as a tool to become a national model for how to revitalize a downtown.

Now, I understand the sensitivities…I understand the frustration caused by congestion, even though we experience more traffic driving on multi-lane suburban streets than when we drive downtown where we can use our grid system to get around efficiently.

I am immensely proud of my city and what we were able to accomplish. But I also understand it is not everyone’s cup of tea. And I understand that change cuts both ways: it can be good, it can be not so good. But all in all, I think Delray did a nice job.

We don’t allow big buildings, especially when compared to our coastal neighbors, which allow heights more than twice as tall as we do.

Efforts have been made to limit massing and maintain the human scale that is our calling card. We narrowed US 1 in our downtown to make it more of a neighborhood and less of a highway. We improved pedestrian safety and we have created a year-round economy in what had once been a seasonal town.

 

But in many ways, even though others think we have done a good job, we are losing the argument.

City planners and new urbanists are often fans of Delray. I’m here, 17 years after being term limited, because ULI views Delray as a positive example.

But as the kids say when talking about relationships—it’s complicated.

When politicians look at our city and see their best chance of being elected as running against what has been achieved downtown because density was used wisely— something has gone awry.

So as Deerfield weighs its next move relative to density, growth and change…I would offer up Delray as a good comp. We are both a success story and a cautionary tale.

We succeeded because we revitalized what had been a declining downtown. The revitalization has stood the test of time—we survived the financial crisis, Covid, competition from other cities and changing tastes. I would argue that density done right—done gently as my friend Juan (Urban designer Juan Mullerat) would say–helps you build wonderful and memorable places.

I commend you for engaging with ULI and inviting the public into this process, much like we did when we crafted our Downtown Master Plan in 2001.

But I would urge you—from experience—to never stop engaging, educating, and learning together as a community. We stopped doing those things somewhere along the way…because after all politicians come and go. But the need to keep dreaming and implementing never goes away. That’s the beauty of cities. You are never done, especially if you get some kind of success. You can’t be complacent. Complacency is a killer.

As a former elected official, I know you can never please everyone. And you can really set your community back by trying. But you can and should take a long-term view and try and move the big rocks.

The best piece of advice I ever got was that elected office is a job to do, not to have.

You need to take some risks to move the needle and make things happen in your city. But you have to bring the community along with you…they have to buy-in and say yes. And they have to keep saying yes. That means a never-ending conversation about the future of your community. That’s the fun part.

I’m a fan of Deerfield Beach, I’m in the Cove for dinner, I love your beach and I used to have an office in town. So, I am rooting for you.

I’ll conclude by telling you what happened with Worthing Place.

It succeeded. It never became the blighted tenement that opponents feared would forever scar our downtown. Instead, it became a catalyst for activity and additional investment.

The restaurants downstairs have become popular spots…the apartments are coveted, and the garage is well-used and a money maker for the city. A few months ago, the company I work for, a family office, bought the building from BlackRock for over $100mm. So, you can see that the project that divided our town has a whole lot of value.

It’s a full circle moment for me and a major investment in our downtown for my company. I’d like to think that density —done well—created an ecosystem that remains an attractive place for people to live, work and play. Thank you for this opportunity and good luck with your wonderful city.