September 21, 2014

The Regions

Southeast: Sure and Steady Growth

High-tech connections and global accessibility nurture a robust economy in Southeast Florida.

Jeff Zbar | 9/1/2006

Treasure abounds

Collaboration is key to growth along Southeast Florida's Treasure Coast, as the counties of Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River have long been known. The three teamed up to create The Florida Research Coast, a collaborative effort designed to position the region as a hub for research and development. Working with area universities, research firms, school boards and economic development leaders, the initiative is aimed at guiding the region's industrial sciences development.

From the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of Lake Okeechobee, Martin County is experiencing notable growth, says Ted Astolfi, executive director, Business Development Board of Martin County. An example is Indiantown. Long a farming community, this city of 12,000 residents is seeing significant growth. Centex Homes has several projects in the works here, and industrial development has arrived in the form of Venture Industrial Park and Indiantown Commerce & Technology Park, where 60 available lots will require only about a month for final permitting.

Over the next seven to 10 years, another 7,000 new homes could find a place in the county's western reaches, says Allon Fish, president and CEO of the Indiantown- Western Martin County Chamber of Commerce.

Mary Freeman, president and cofounder of Awareness Technology Inc., a Palm City-based manufacturer of lab instruments and chemical analyzers with 140 employees, sees Martin County as the launching pad for global growth. Her company recently supplied 1,000 Chinese labs with equipment designed to test and monitor the spread of disease in rural areas; she expects that business to grow.

Recent growth along Florida's Treasure Coast comes as no surprise to Levitt Corp.'s Core Commercial Group. As far back as the 1980s, Levitt developers saw what was happening in St. Lucie County. The company now has 1,600 homes under contract (600 are occupied and another 17,000 are planned) on the 8,300 acres it controls. The development includes a 4.5-mile employment corridor and eight million square feet of commercial, retail and industrial space fronting I-95.

New residents arrive in St. Lucie County with the intent to "get away from the daily grind," says Alan Karrh, president of Core Commercial Group. Attractive housing prices and nearby job growth appeal to companies considering a move to the area.

One example is circuit and switch maker Carling Technologies of Plainville, Conn. Last year, the company announced plans to relocate its corporate headquarters and research and development facilities to Port St. Lucie in 2008, bringing or creating 150 jobs.

The prospect of such a move was "very difficult," wrote President Rick Sorenson in a letter to his Carling employees. But with global competition and new, emerging markets, it was the best decision to avoid becoming "a casualty of the global competitive marketplace." Sorenson was drawn to the area by the presence of FAU and Scripps nearby, as well as St. Lucie County's role in Florida's Research Coast initiative.

Elsewhere in St. Lucie County, Indian River Community College recently opened the $20 million Kight Center for Emerging Technologies in Fort Pierce, and will build a facility to train homeland security personnel. Florida State University Medical School is planning a site for internships. The county also is home to a 1,650-acre research park being created by University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and is bidding to become the relocation home of the National Biological Agricultural Defense System.

St. Lucie also serves as a distribution center. In June 2006, drugstore chain CVS, headquartered in Rhode Island, began operating its 430,000- square-foot fully automated distribution facility from a site in Indian River County, serving Florida from Interstate 4 southward. Location and logistics made the county ideal, says Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS. Once the facility is fully operational, it will offer 350 jobs and 30% more productivity in half the space of a conventional distribution center. "The facility performs the work of a typical distribution facility twice its size," he says.

Wal-Mart last year opened a $1.2 million distribution facility, employing 1,000 people, and boat makers Maverick Boat Company, Pursuit Boats and Twin Vee Catamarans are located here.

Also attractive to employers new to the region is the county's housing stock and labor pool. Some 100,000 new homes are planned, and the population stands at 240,000 residents--all of which are fueling growth in the construction trade, says Larry Daum, manager of tourism and economic development for St. Lucie County. The average purchase price for a home here is close to the national average, and population growth is steady at between 2% and 4% per year. Moreover, the Florida Research Coast initiative and the Workforce Development Board provide new employers with hiring solutions for any rung on the employment ladder, from entry level to more skilled hires.

CVS and Wal-Mart are only the beginning. The creation of a new highway interchange at Oslo Road will anchor a major east-west arterial roadway and open new industrial land to the west, where the former Ocean Spray processing plant is awaiting redevelopment.

"The vision is to attract industrial to that location," says Helene Caseltine, economic development director for the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce. Development likely won't come until 2010, but the prospect is alluring. "It's a ways off, but the fact that it's there and approved excites us."

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Tourism as a driver

With tourism a significant economic driver for Florida as a whole, Monroe County, and the Florida Keys in particular, is fueled by tourists and new seasonal residents and the developments and services designed to accommodate them.

Tourism spending in the Keys is forecast to remain strong, even as hotels are bought up and converted to condominiums, according to a recent study by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. Restaurants and related support industries will continue to thrive--albeit with a new customer base with higher than average disposable income--and the news has area business and civic leaders optimistic about the future, says Virginia A. Panico, president of the Federation of Chambers of the Florida Keys.

Akin to the economic boom facing other tourist areas like Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, condo conversions are changing the look of the Keys. Some 25% of Key West's hotel rooms are being converted to "condotels." And Ceebraid Acquisition of Delaware has contracted to convert Islamorada's fabled Holiday Isle Resort, with its 15 acres and 178 hotel rooms, efficiencies, cottages and suites, to high-end condominiums.

Tourism investment also is up. New player Cay Clubs along with Singh Co. and Coral Gables-based Peebles Corp. have acquired several area properties for condominium and resort use. Cay Clubs alone could generate 250 more jobs.

Ed Swift, president of Historic Tours of America Inc.--operator of Key West's Conch Tour Train and Old Town Trolley and other attractions and retail outlets--is bullish. "Key West is pretty much bulletproof as far as the tourist economy is concerned."

-- Jeff Zbar

Tags: Southeast, Banking & Finance, Business Services, Education, Business Florida

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