If anyplace can be said to have been left for dead, West Gate Estates in Palm Beach
The city of West Palm Beach de-annexed the area in 1929, leaving its 6,000 working-class households with virtually no infrastructure and an inadequate tax base. As neighboring areas prospered from the growing tourist and agricultural economies, West Gate Estates steadily slid into blight. Businesses were scarce and drugs were rampant.
That was before Joe Pitts, a 20-year Army vet with a knack for navigating the thicket of government regulations, rolled up his sleeves. Pitts set in motion a citizen-led machine that's turning the area around, parcel by parcel.
"West Palm Beach just forgot about this area," says Pitts, 67, who, with the exception of his Army years, has lived in West Gate Estates since he was five. "We're in the bottom of a drainage basin. And while other areas around here were getting roads, dredged swampland, and land banks to prevent flooding, we were bypassed. So when it storms, all the water runs in on us."
Armed with his broker's license, Pitts has led the effort to turn the area's nascent redevelopment agency into an aggressive economic development machine.
The quasi-governmental agency was formed in 1989, and Pitts turned down offers to head it, believing he could be more effective as a private businessman. But he has sat on virtually every committee at the agency.
Over the past decade, the agency has used its authority to issue bonds and request federal grants to install infrastructure, change zoning, and launch other developments, including a community gymnasium and a wellness center for indigent residents.
Earlier this year--after years of agency effort to change setback rules--the subdivision's main commercial corridor was widened from two lanes to five. The original setbacks were too small to sustain a viable commercial corridor, so the street widening is expected to bring commercial development and pave the way for long-due infrastructure improvements, including roads, sidewalks, public sewer, and potable water. And thanks to Pitts' obtaining a federal matching grant, funds have been earmarked to address the area's drainage problems.
Pitts has also turned a needed eye on the local public grade school, which was groaning under the weight of a 760-student load, twice the number it was built for. "By the time I came back from the Army, the school had filled the playground with 27 portable classrooms to accommodate all those kids," he says. "That's just not a good learning atmosphere. When I asked school officials why they'd done nothing to expand the school, they said they couldn't because they were landlocked."
Pitts set out to change that. He persuaded many of the surrounding property owners to sell to the school, freeing up enough land to build a new school large enough to handle 900 students. Construction will start this spring.
"Joe was indefatigable in his efforts to get us the land for the school," says Thais Villanueva, principal of West Gate Elementary School.
"This area had just been written off," Pitts says. "But now I envision that both the commercial north side and the residential south side will be fully developed. I want to call it the Miracle Mile, because that's what it'll be once we get businesses in here."
Pitts hasn't been one to wait for miracles. He makes things happen, and his efforts don't stop at development issues. He has led projects to clean up public areas, reduce crime, rid the area of drugs, and instill civic pride. He has also been a good friend to people in his community. "Joe has been a godsend to me," says Jessie Morrison, one of Pitts' neighbors.
Pitts volunteered time and effort to help renovate several houses when Morrison and other elderly owners couldn't muster the resources to keep them in adequate repair. "He really does help his neighbor," says Morrison.
That explains why Pitts, who isn't one to trumpet his achievements, has been affectionately dubbed by his neighbors the "mayor of West Gate Estates."
Editor's Note: JOSEPH D. PITTS passed away November 10, 2005. Pitts, 72, is survived by four daughters and two sons, and many grandchildren; nieces and nephews. Pitts served his country 20 years in the Army. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War and was a prominent Realtor and broker. Donations to Westgate Elementary School Joseph Pitts Fund.
How to contact Westgate Elementary School
1545 Loxahatchee Dr.
West Palm Beach, Fla. 33409