By Michele Dargan -- Special to Palm Beach Society Magazine -- Bob Wright is no stranger to high-profile roles. The former vice chairman of General Electric and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal, Mr. Wright also has founded two charitable foundations that champion fundraising and raise awareness for autism and pancreatic cancer.
Mr. Wright and his late-wife, Suzanne, co-founded Autism Speaks in 2005 after their grandson, Christian, was diagnosed with autism. After Suzanne passed away last year from pancreatic cancer, he launched The Suzanne Wright Foundation, known as “Code Purple,” to raise money for the fight against that disease.
After retiring from the business world, Mr. Wright stepped into another prominent role. He became chairman and CEO of the Palm Beach Civic Association in 2010. The non-partisan organization is dedicated to preserving, protecting, and improving the quality of life in Palm Beach.
Founded in 1944, the association’s tenets are to encourage citizen involvement, educate and engage residents on key town issues, take proactive stands on civic affairs, and work closely with local, state, and the federal officials.
“I’ve always been involved with civic activities in my business career,” he said. “I was involved with the United Way for a number of years, so this was not something I was unfamiliar with. This is a little bit of giving back to Palm Beach.”
Mr. Wright would like to engage as many residents as possible to get involved with the Civic Association and become knowledgeable about the critical issues affecting the quality of life on the island.
“My interests are aligned with most people’s interest in wanting to have Palm Beach as an attractive and successful community, as it has been for so many years,” he continued. “We try to gather people in the community, many of whom are retired, who want to dedicate their time in specific areas. There’s a tremendous amount of talent here in Palm Beach. Not everybody is looking to go back to work, but most people enjoy doing something that’s related to the work that they’ve done for 30 or 40 years.”
The Civic Association was founded by a handful of civic-minded Palm Beach residents. In the early days, the association thrived under the leadership of the first two presidents Alexander H. Rutherford and Palm Beach attorney Joseph Gunster, Vice President Page Hufty and Secretary-Treasurer John Volk, a well-known Palm Beach architect. Under their leadership, the membership grew to more than 300 members in the first two years.
The Civic Association holds programs and forums designed to educate residents on the most important issues facing Palm Beach.
Some of the most recent high-profile issues include the proposed Port of Palm Beach expansion, redevelopment of the Testa’s property and Royal Poinciana Plaza, shore protection, undergrounding, and traffic impacts due to construction and the presidential visits.
“We’re trying to give the public an opportunity to participate in a more casual manner with the issues the town faces,” he said. “These are issues that are before the Town Council or undoubtedly will be before the Town Council. We make a real effort to be very knowledgeable about the town’s financial situation.”
One of the most important things that the Civic Association has fought against is the expansion and deepening of the Port of Palm Beach, Mr. Wright said.
“The work we’ve done to try and keep the Port of Palm Beach from overrunning us with enormous vessels, that’s the ongoing fight,” he said. “Congresswoman Lois Frankel helped with stopping the Army Corps of Engineers from deepening the water dramatically, which would have negative impacts on all of the property values here. We stopped it two years ago. We may not have stopped it forever, but we’ve slowed it down.”
The Civic Association became involved in staying on top of the latest developments and delivering the information to the public regarding the construction of the new Flagler Memorial Bridge. Mr. Wright said it was disappointing that the state chose to hire one company to handle both the design of the bridge and the construction.
“There were a number of errors made,” he said. “In the end, they didn’t want to build a temporary bridge and that turned out to be a big mistake. Here we are in 2017 and they’re not finished yet.”
The fact that Palm Beach is an island surrounded by water brings its own impacts to the community.
“We want the water to be clean and safe,” Mr. Wright said. “We always focus on the ocean side, basically on the sand and erosion, and spend very little time focused on the Lake Worth side that has more housing on it. The quality of the water and the building going on in West Palm Beach is going to impact the entire waterline starting at the inlet and going all the way down to Lake Worth.”
During election season, the association holds a “Meet Your Candidates” reception, where residents mingle with the candidates and hear a short pitch by each candidate in attendance. For some races, the association holds a candidates’ debate.
The Civic Association continues to be guided by strong leaders with Mr. Wright at the helm, Ned Barnes as president, Pat Cooper as treasurer and an executive committee of strong community supporters. The membership has grown to well over 2,000 men and women who call this exceptional island home.
“Bob has been a tremendous leader and we’re so happy he agreed to take the helm of the organization when we needed him most,” Mr. Barnes said. “He’s built and expanded and broadened the scope of the organization. He’s taken us from an issues-oriented group to a multi-dimensional group, where people love to belong and participate. Bob Wright has overseen that change. He’s a big picture guy. He has a vision for what the Civic Association could be and he always keeps that clear.”