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Board members brainstorm about life on the island

Our Town with William Kelly: What’s good and bad about Palm Beach? Board members brainstorm about life on the island

A consultant led the nine members of the new Strategic Planning Board through exercises Friday to get them talking about what’s good and bad about life in Palm Beach.

The town’s low crime rate, natural beauty, culture, recreational opportunities and architecture ranked high. The downside? Too many people, traffic-choked streets, a shortage of premium parking spaces, and environmental concerns that include water quality issues and sea level rise.

Trainnovations, a planning consultant based in West Palm Beach, divided the board members into two groups that separately brainstormed about the town’s strengths and weaknesses and the threats and opportunities that face it.

The exercises are the beginning of a process that will culminate in a new strategic plan for the town – its first since 2003. The new plan is due for presentation to the Town Council in the spring of 2023.

“We’re not problem solving,” Trina Pulliam of Trainnovations told the board chaired by Mayor Danielle Moore. “It’s not your job to figure it out. Today, it’s just: what does it all mean?”

Strengths included living in a community where residents feel safe and where the town government delivers a high level of service, board members said. The crime rate is low and the quality of emergency responders is high.

The ratio of town staff to the local population is also high, and town staff members are forward-thinking and responsive to residents’ questions and concerns, board members said.

Members also pointed to the amenities and cultural institutions that enrich life in the town.

“When you leave and go visit other places, you’re happy you live here,” said Pulliam, describing the feedback she gathered from board members.

Residents must cross the bridge to reach the airport, a hospital or cultural institutions like the Norton Museum of Art or Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. Still, Palm Beach has much to offer, including first-class restaurants and a new world-class marina. There’s no movie theater in town, and the Royal Poinciana Playhouse has been shuttered for nearly 20 years. But there are plans to renovate and revive it.

The Society of the Four Arts and the Morton and Barbara Mandel Recreation Center are first-class facilities for lectures and recreation, board member Beth Dowdle said.

“For a town this size we have an extraordinary amount of cultural opportunities,” she said.

Board member Nicki McDonald agreed, saying, “I do think there’s a tremendous amount of enrichment for people living here.”

On the downside, Palm Beach’s streets are increasingly clogged with traffic during the winter, when the seasonal population swells to its annual peak. Pedestrians and bicyclists fill the popular and scenic Lake Trail.

“There’s more of everything – more tourists, more cars, more bikes,” said Trainnovations’ Melinda Miller, reporting board members’ comments back to the full board. “There’s a decrease in manners.”

Pulliam said there’s a feeling that the town’s culture is changing for the worse.

“The Palm Beach way is kind, polite and slower paced,” she said. “That’s been the culture, but it’s changing. There’s a feeling we’re not going to be able to return to that pace of life from 15 years ago.”

Environmental changes, both manmade and natural, were also deemed as a major threat. Members cited sea level rise and more active hurricane seasons; concerns about the quality of drinking water supplied by the City of West Palm Beach; the heavy use of pesticides on lawns throughout town; and uncertainty about a secure water source after the town’s supply agreement with West Palm Beach expires in 2029.

The opinions expressed Friday will help staff and the consultant to develop questions for a survey of town residents, Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar said. The survey will be discussed by the board at a meeting in April, he said.

The board’s next meeting is at 9 a.m. on March 18 in Town Hall.