By Samantha Joseph
STUART -- In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Florida East Coast Railway helped spur economic development and drive the establishment of the city of Stuart.
Now, about 100 years later, as the city gets ready for its centennial celebrations in 2014, its new mayor wants to see a return of passenger trains to the area.
"The railroad was one of the big factors that first got this city invigorated. It would be good to get that oomph again before the centennial," said Eula Clarke, who was sworn in as mayor on Dec. 12. "It would be great if we were to get a passenger rail. Right now Amtrak goes to Indiantown. We're hoping to get that here."
Plans for a railway stop in the city have been in the works since 2008, with state, federal and local officials discussing the possibility of creating a station on public land.
Planners are considering several sites, including Kiwanis Park across from court house, between Confusion Corner and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and a spot just north of St. Lucie Boulevard, across from city hall.
During her term, Mayor Clarke plans to work with county and local leaders to jumpstart decision-making on the station and several other major issues facing the city.
Her priority list includes spurring detailed discussions on the best use of city property on the downtown waterfront, creating a five-year strategic plan, improving communications between residents and local government and working to enhance neighborhoods across the municipality.
"Those are the sort of community consensus meetings I want to try to lead during the year so we can get public feedback," she said. "It's a good time be a mayor in Stuart. We're transitioning and it's a matter of getting things done."
Ms. Clarke became mayor after commissioners selected her for the post this month. Former mayor and longtime Commissioner Jeffrey Krauskopf nominated her for the job, seconded by Kelli Glass-Leighton, a one-time political opponent in the race for the Group 5 seat on the commission.
Ms. Clarke served as vice mayor beginning Dec. 2011, and is in her second term as city commissioner.
She replaces Mayor James Christie, who served on the commission from 1983 to 1994, and again from 2006 onward. Mr. Christie was the city's first black mayor and Ms. Clarke is the first black woman to serve in that role.
"I'm excited about the possibilities, and look forward to making some impact during my year as mayor," Ms. Clarke said. "I'm elated that my fellow commissioners nominated and seconded me. It was an honor to be nominated by Commissioner Krauskopf, who has served such a long time and seconded by Commissioner Glass, who I once ran against. It was just very positive. I am also thrilled to follow in the footsteps of Mayor Christie, who led ably and is well respected."
The former mayor welcomed his successor, saying she was a skilled and experienced public official.
"I think she'll do well," Mayor Christie said. "She's used to government, having worked with the county and the city. She's pretty astute when it comes to the issues and what's happening around us."
The new job is the latest in a series of positions that have seen Ms. Clarke shape or influence development in the city and region for more than 20 years.
She moved to the county in 1985, and has lived in Stuart for about 24 years.
A former urban planner, she worked as a transportation and land-use planner for the Martin County board of commissioners, doing development reviews, transportation and long-range planning, as well as helping to create the county's current comprehensive plan.
In 1993 she went to law school, and now operates a private practice in Stuart.
Ms. Clarke aims to use her background in urban planning to help create a five-year strategic plan that would serve as a blueprint for the city's growth.
"Other than the immediate downtown area, we really haven't set a plan for what we want to do. We have a comprehensive plan that's sitting on the shelf," she said. "But if investors are going to come in, if we're going to have a viable product to offer and standards for approving projects, we need to have a comprehensive economic plan for our city. That's the way to make it more vibrant and prosperous for those here and for the new businesses we want to attract."
Part of the plan would include initiatives to improve neighborhoods through efforts that reduce crime and remove negative stereotypes associated with some pockets of the city.
"I want residents to feel free and safe enough to stop and buy a burger, do shopping or go to the post office in any neighborhood," Mayor Clarke said.
"The idea of cohesiveness in our community makes us shine as one big jewel without knots or cracks to hold us back. What we have to do right now is fix the cracks."
A key step involves raising funds to support projects that fight crime, improve public infrastructure and develop area arts and culture.
One proposal includes working with the county to approve a half-cent sales tax to help recapture tax revenue lost due to falling property values and foreclosures.
"It's our community. The goal is to get people to give feedback and participate in the process. We want to find a balance between the attention shown to downtown Stuart and the work we do in other neighborhoods. We want people to know that city hall is working for them," Ms. Clarke said.
During her term as mayor she will also participate in planning the city's centennial celebrations, set for 2014.
"There's going to be a lot of sprucing up. We want to be the gem of the Treasure Coast by being a good, vibrant, transparent place that's good for work and play."