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For Florida town, growth at what price?

The seal of the City of Port Orange

Port Orange Mayor Allen Green stands in his office.

Perhaps no one knows the story of Port Orange, Fla., better than Allen Green. He has lived in Port Orange, just south of Daytona Beach, for 73 years. And for many of those years, he has been the city's mayor. Allen has a lot of memories of the Port Orange of his youth.

A few feet from the banks of the Halifax River, he says there was a cluster of buildings -- many of them were oyster houses. "Oysters were everything. They built roadways out of them. There was a lot of shrimpers. There were fishermen. That type of people, working-class people," he said.

Today, the population of Port Orange is 50 times bigger than it was when Green was a kid. And in many ways, it is emblematic of small cities across Florida that embraced growth and development over the last decade. In the case of Port Orange, much of its growth happened after a string of hurricanes hit the region in 2004 and 2005.

What were things like around here then?

"Before the rockets started falling? Everybody got greedy. After the hurricanes, everybody. You had that insurance money flowing. You had the economy flowing and they bought overpriced land, overpriced buildings, condominiums. Everybody had multiple homes," said Green.

Mayor Green is fit, with a deep tan and a strong preference for shorts over suits. He keeps an office at city hall, but it's pretty empty. He likes to be out and about, conducting the city's business in person. Over the years, Green has been a proponent of growth. And when developers turned their attention to new subdivisions, west of town, Green became the public face of a half-a-billion-dollar effort to redevelop the city's waterfront. He dreamed up a mix of condos, shops and restaurants on the Halifax, called the Port Orange Riverwalk.

But today, the Riverwalk is still a dream. Not a single high-rise has been built. After the housing collapse, land prices plummeted, developers pulled back, Riverwalk was shelved. And the city faced its own challenges -- no income tax. In Florida, that's something that has been a selling point for the state, but has hurt municipalities.

"We're one of the very few states in the country that does not have an income tax," said Ken Small, technical services manager at the Florida League of Cities.

That means cities and counties pay their bills with taxes they collect on property. That worked well-enough when home values were high, but since the housing bubble burst, municipalities have been struggling. Nearly half of all homeowners in this county owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth.

"Cities and counties have gone through tremendous budget cutting," said Small. "And many of those cities are showing their tax base is still shrinking."

Last year, Port Orange collected a third less money in property taxes than it did five years earlier -- $3.5 million less. Green says what has made the tax problem even worse are all the exemptions written into Florida law.

"Nothing against veterans, they get a veteran's exemption," said Green.

There's also an exemption if your permanent residence in Florida, and if you're a senior. And in this community, a quarter of the population qualifies. "If you do exemption, exemption, exemption, they're not paying their way," added Green.

Green estimates 35 percent of Port Orange pays no taxes to the city.

"That is not right. There is a cost associated with the quality of life, and you should pay your fair share of it," he said.

Like many other mayors in Florida, Green faces tough decisions -- how to pay for city services, salaries for 400 full-time workers, etc. Green says he always wanted to see Port Orange grow, but nowhere near as fast as it did. He believes the town has lost its sense of community. Big boxes are coming in, he said, adding that he's not a fan.

The changes remind Green of a song he likes by country singer Alan Jackson called "Little Man." Some of the songs lyrics include: "And now the court square is just a set of streets. The people go around, but they don't think about the little man that built this town, before the big money shut him down, and killed the little man."

Might the upcoming presidential election help solve some of Port Orange's economic woes? For Green, it's not likley. He says the only election he cares about this year already happened -- Green just won a fifth term. The last presidential candidate he voted for was Ronald Reagan. He backed Ron Paul in the primaries, and is not enthusiastic about either President Obama or Mitt Romney. In many ways, Green says development was the economy or Port Orange, and he doesn't think either candidate can help the city find an alternative.

"The only thing we export in Port Orange is dead bodies, and our kids have to go somewhere else to get a decent job," he said.

Port Orange used to be known as "The Oyster Capital of the World," and Mayor Green wants it to be known for something again.


You can follow David Guru’s roadtrip through Florida all week on our radio program, and on an interactive map.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Port Orange Mayor Allen Green stands in his office.

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