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Friday, April 12, 2024

Q&A With Jack Hilligoss

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Q&A With Jack Hilligoss

by James Coulter

Jack Hilligoss has lived and pastored in the city of Lake Wales for a total of 29 years— the first four when he attended Warner Southern College, the last 25 after he returned in 1997 to pastor what is now HighPoint Church. Jack has been married to his wife, Jenelle, for 35 years and they raised three children here in Lake Wales.

His church has grown from a constituency of less than 100 to reaching several hundred every week. HighPoint Church has invested deeply in the city of Lake Wales in the last 25 years. HighPoint has led community-wide efforts to serve the city and schools. They have given thousands of dollars and many thousands of volunteer hours to paint buildings, clean up streets, resource schools and classrooms, help equip emergency responders, and feed students. They have twice been recognized by the city of Lake Wales through proclamation for their service and for the financial savings it created.

In early 2022, HighPoint completed a relocation project to a new location on North Scenic Highway in Lake Wales.  The process took over three years and resulted in a win/win for the church and the city as the church’s old location was repurposed as the permanent home of Victory Ridge Academy, a school for special needs students in Lake Wales, which is a great asset to the city.

In 2021 Mr. Hilligoss was appointed to the City Commission of Lake Wales to fill the seat vacated by Commissioner Kris Fitzgerald. He has served in that capacity since and has also served as the Lake Wales Representative to the Polk County Transportation Planning Committee.

Recently, we sat down with Mr. Hilligoss to ask him a few questions concerning his positions on hot button issues. Here is what he had to say:

Q: The City of Lake Wales is predicted to triple in size in the next 10 years with 8,500 new homes approved in the city limits. What are your plans for the city to facilitate this growth?

This is THE ISSUE facing our city at this time. My response to this is “Locally Controlled Growth.” Growth is coming, it cannot be ignored or stopped, so the decision to be made is, “Who will be in charge of it? Who will be in control?” This is why I have been encouraged by and have backed the efforts of our city staff to work with landowners and developers who have sought annexation into our city. The more of this we do the more we control the quality of the development that takes place. Not to mention receiving the financial benefits of growth.

When landowners and developers are working with us rather than the county, we can make sure the development is high quality, provides plenty of green space, reduces monotony, and limits as much as possible the impact on our infrastructure. All of the new developments we have approved aim for these goals and meet these standards and they will need to continue to do so.

If we refuse to take control, if we choose to leave this in the hands of others, the development will simply grow up around us under the supervision and standards of the county. It is that reality, however, that makes me want to work harder as Mayor to facilitate stronger and more cooperative working relationships between the 17 municipalities of Polk and our County Government. I would explore how we can use the League of Cities and other groups like it to create more collegial and cooperative relationships so we can be less reactive and more proactive in planning.

Also, this year, our city staff initiated a year-long land-use study and I am anxious to see what comes of that. I am hoping it will provide a template we can use in future annexation and growth decisions.

One final concern I would share however is we need to be careful how we communicate about growth. There is a great difference and a great deal of time between 8,500 homes being “approved” and them actually being built.  “Approved” means different things, there are different levels of “approval”-and a large percentage of development “approved” by any city is never built.  Even if all 8500 units are built it will not happen in the next decade and will not triple the population in that time.

I don’t share this to deny that we are growing rapidly and need to deal with it responsibly. I do so because I have read a lot of sensational and irresponsible reporting on this issue in the local Lake Wales paper and, while that may grab readers, it creates a lot of unnecessary apprehension in our citizens.

Q: Concerns have been raised about waiving impact fees, especially in light of the approval of new development. These fees are necessary to fund any potential infrastructure. How do you think the city should address this issue?

In my time on the City Commission, the idea of waiving impact fees has never been raised or considered. I do not anticipate they ever will be. I would not be in favor of it.

The only place that may happen is when we are making an investment in the defined “opportunity zone” or “core development area” of Lake Wales (historic downtown and the Lincoln Ave. historic district) and I see great upside to that with no or minimal impact on the infrastructure of our city.

Q: Another prescient concern is education, especially about potential overcrowding and understaffing. How will overcrowding be addressed? Will developers be required to set aside “so much” land for schools? Will you put pressure on the Polk County School Board to allocate funds to the Lake Wales Charter Schools?

Whenever a development reaches a certain stage of “approval”-and remember not all of these thousands of homes are close to this-Polk County performs a concurrency study to assess if there is the need for future schools.

So, that concern is addressed again at the county level. However, our city staff does use the formulas of the county on their own to try and stay ahead of the curve on those needs. 

Polk County currently owns land in Lake Wales that is set aside for the building of future schools should they become necessary and some developers, like the Winter Haven Corporation, which is heading up the largest single development in our area, do work with the city to set aside a piece of their development for future schools. It is always something we can negotiate.

When it comes to funding for the LW Charter Schools, I would be happy to lend whatever help I can, but that is an issue that is completely outside the realm of City Government responsibility.

Q: Finally, there’s infrastructure. Many citizens have voiced concerns about Chalet Suzanne Road and their desire to see a sidewalk there. Others want existing streets to be repaved such as the road in front of Spook Hill Elementary. What plans and priorities towards infrastructure do you want the city to implement?

Citizen concerns about Chalet Suzanne and Thompson Nursery Road are certainly justified. The short, but frustrating, answer to that these are County Roads and not under the jurisdiction of the City of Lake Wales.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean we cannot do anything.  I voiced our concerns over these roads to the County Transportation Planning Board in late 2021. Groups of citizens from Lake Ashton have also gone to county meetings and advocated for these needs and concerns. We can also try to get neighborhoods and municipalities to work together to advocate for these needs at the county level.

Just this year an expansion of Thompson Nursery Road was green-lighted as well as the design and installation of a traffic light at a neighborhood entrance on that road. I think neighborhood advocacy played some part in that.

As far as city streets are concerned.  Lake Wales adopted a five-year repaving plan and was implementing it consistently up until COVID hit us. In response to that crisis, the City Manager scaled back spending to some degree. However, several city streets are currently slated for repair and repaving this year and next.

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