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'Awesome Place' Sanford Battles Negative National Images

April 2, 2012 - 6:00pm

Entering the historic downtown, visitors are greeted by a sign outside McRoberts Auto Center with a simple message: Sanford is still a good little town.

The sign is a statement from employee Jimbo Carter to the outside world declaring that life in the quiet lakefront community at the southern terminus of the Auto Train isnt what people see on television.

There have been no race riots. Homes and shops are not on fire. It is safe to arrive at Sanford-Orlando International Airport (officials say they have received calls from people asking if they should land at a different airport).

People are not camped out -- other than a scattering of national and local television news live trucks outside the city hall in the community north of Orlando.

Those in the media daily await the latest tidbit to report on the state investigation into the Feb. 26 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who claims he was acting in self-defense under the states Stand Your Ground law.

Its the constant updates, leading to national and international focus on the community, that have drawn as much concern and talk as the investigation itself.

We have had a few people call and say were not coming down because there is too much turmoil, said Hatch Dickey, the owner of McRoberts, who grew up in Sanford. Even on days there have been rallies there hasnt been any problem. But well see how it goes in a month or so.

With a long-range view, Dickey admitted the sign was a compromise. They had considered a statement in support of Police Chief Billy Lee, who has temporarily stepped down amid accusations that his department bungled the initial investigation.

I grew up with him, went to high school with him, a lot of our customers went to high school with him, hes got great supporters, but you have to stay on medium ground, Dickey said.

Residents say when there have been protests in the residential part of the city or closer to the Seminole County Courthouse -- between the brick-lined road that runs through the downtown and the southern shore of a tranquil Lake Monroe -- demonstrators have been well-behaved.

The protests have focused on the incident, not the city.

Those attending the organized events swirling around the Martin-Zimmerman case arrive, march, make their case and have calmly left without incident, residents and business owners say.

Sanford-native Reggie Lawson, who owns a home improvement business, spent Monday afternoon fishing from shore into Lake Monroe.

He said there havent been any tensions in the marches that have been held, but said there is a concern that could change if the state attorney and grand jury dont take any action against Zimmerman.

Everything is cool, its the media that is blowing everything out of proportion, Lawson said. One guy I know says hes been losing business, but that isnt true. There is not a whole lot going on in Sanford other than when they hold a rally. Everybody just wants justice. Theyre not looking to burn the town down.

Lawson, who is black, said in the past decade the city has seen a marked improvement in race relations, spurred by church efforts to find activities for the youth.

In 1997, Sanford officials formally apologized for their predecessors who prohibited Jackie Robinson and the Montreal Royals from playing baseball in the city, where the Brooklyn Dodgers' minor league team trained 51 years earlier.

Today, residents both white and black say they want the justice system to work for Martins family. Then, most ask -- and there seems to be no immediate answer -- when will life return to normal?

In the White Cup Coffeehouse, owner Beth Reichert noted that her mother in Colorado has called, concerned about riots in Sanford being reported on television.

I feel like I have a good pulse of what is going on, but I guess if you just turn on the TV and it's marching and protests, thats what you think is all that is happening, Reichert said. There is absolutely nothing going on in Sanford, its very quiet. Its really an awesome place to be.

The local chamber of commerce defers comment to an appointed spokesman at the city hall and state attorneys office.

In an editorial responding to an Orlando Sentinel report --Sanfords image: Forever tarnished? --Michael Caraway, vice chairman of the Greater Sanford Regional Chamber of Commerce, confidently declared the answer over time will prove to be no.

As a white man, I wont pretend that I have the same perspective as that of a person of color, Caraway stated in the April 1 column in the Sentinel.

It is true that the city of Sanford has a shameful history in regard to race relations, a history that still casts a long shadow. It would be wrong to try to brush away the past, or act as if it does not relate to the current situation. That would be a disservice to the people who have worked so hard over the years to change not just Sanfords image, but its reality.

Reach Jim Turner at or at (772) 215-9889.

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