Farewell to an Optimist

by Bernard McCormick Thursday, September 01, 2016 No Comment(s)

It was the early 1970s. We were new in town, still trying to figure out which way the ocean was, but we had learned that Maggie Walker was a reliable source. She was assistant editor of Gold Coast magazine, and when she suggested a piece on a fellow who had a renewal plan for Fort Lauderdale’s downtown, we trusted her judgment.

Thus we learned about Stan Smoker, who had come to town in the 1950s, leaving behind a family business in Indiana. He took a job driving a truck for $40 a week, and went on to become a developer who saw the future of downtown Fort Lauderdale when the tallest building was about five stories high and Las Olas Boulevard was filled with gray windows of vacant stores. At the time, Commercial Boulevard, several miles to the north, was the center of entertainment.

The article included a double page rendering by the architectural firm of Gamble & Gilroy. It seemed absurdly optimistic, showing new tall office buildings and condos and featuring a new library and art museum. All expected to happen within a few years. It did not happen—not then. The economy took a downtown, and the city’s major department store, Burdines, even moved out to the new Galleria Mall. It was a time when Bill Farkas, the new downtown development director, built tennis courts to give the appearance that something was happening where old buildings had been razed.

Stan Smoker never lost faith in his concept, however. He had acquired land on both sides of the New River and on Las Olas, and eventually, his vision rose from the ground. He died this week, at age 94, having lived long enough to see his concept fulfilled even beyond his ambitious plan, and having his foresight memorialized in Smoker Park, along the south side of the New River, part of his original holdings.

Smoker’s optimism was his style. His son Ed, now a developer, told the Sun Sentinel his father wanted people to like him. They sure did, and he made friendship seem easy, with a happy personality that made you feel like the most important person in the world. Until the last year, when his health declined, he remained highly visible and little changed from the enthusiastic fellow of the 1970s.

Nowhere was that energy more apparent than when, a few years later, Maggie Walker again brought his name up in connection with his plan for developing Scotland Cay in the Bahamas. She went over to cover the story, along with photographer Bob Ruff. Her piece made it sound like a great place for a second home, free from commercial overkill. It featured a shot of Stan relaxing at one of the few homes on the island. You can feel his exuberance in the photo.

Again, his instincts were correct. Not only did he attract prominent Gold Coast people to invest in the island, he also sold to Europeans. Years later he credited the magazine for helping him put Scotland Cay on the map. It probably would have worked as well without the publicity, but appreciation was part of Stan Smoker’s engaging way.

For this Gold Coast pioneer, optimism was its own reward.


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