December 21, 2014

Treasure Coast

Mike Vogel | 4/1/2002
Chests swelled with pride on the Treasure Coast in January. The New York Times prominently featured the Port St. Lucie metropolitan area as having "the fastest growing economy in Florida, and Florida has had the fastest growing economy in the United States." As the Times noted, construction is booming in Port St. Lucie. "Part of it is we are a very diversified economy," says Mayor Bob Minsky.

The broader Treasure Coast region, however, isn't so lucky -- and isn't so diversified. Amid the prosperity, a few voices are concerned that these south central counties rely too much on the twin engines of agriculture and retirees. The former is a volatile commodity business that's increasingly mechanized; the latter creates largely low-wage service jobs.

William H. Fruth of economic research firm Policom Corp. in Jupiter, who analyzes job growth quality -- as in higher wages -- finds counties in the region have weaknesses. "The quality of the economy has declined in relation to the rest of the state and the nation," Fruth says. He blames a lack of economic diversity.

"That is a significant weakness in the Treasure Coast economy," agrees Michael Busha, executive director of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. Leaders are focusing on changing that. "Everyone is setting their sights higher," Busha says.

Vero Beach
Key Trend: Now that developer George de Guardiola has canceled plans for a "Main Street" development on the Los Angeles Dodgers' nine-hole golf course at Dodgertown, the team is pursuing other buyers for the property. Meanwhile, it has a contract with an undisclosed buyer for nearby 339-acre Dodger Pines. Indian River County last year secured the team's continued presence by buying its spring training facility at Dodgertown from the team and leasing it back for $1 a year for 20 years.

People to Watch: Paul Hanna and Hank Porcher, West Palm Beach-based developers and property managers, are ripping down much of the vacant Vero Mall and reconfiguring the site with a Publix, Carrabba's and other tenants to come. All told, they're investing $9 million.

Businesses to Watch: Lost Tree Village Corp. continues its 13-year quest to build 57 luxury homes on five islands in Vero Beach and Indian River Shores -- or be compensated for governmental refusals to allow the project. "We're hopeful we will prevail," says Lost Tree President Charles Bayer. ... Greens+, Vero Beach, a maker of natural food dietary supplements, is building a distribution center and manufacturing facility. It employs 27 locally and 68 sales reps nationally. ... Even after layoffs, New Piper Aircraft remains a major employer and one of the area's -- and state's -- biggest manufacturers.

Major Challenges: Citrus canker has been found north in Brevard County and south in Palm Beach County. Indian River citrus growers fear an outbreak would devastate sales and mean clear-cutting vast groves. Other challenges: Balancing growth with residents' desire for a small-town feel; and the blow from 9/11 to flight schools, New Piper and other aviation businesses, which provide a $300-million economic impact to the county.

Stuart
Key Trend: Does developer Tom Kenny have an answer to Martin County's seeming choice of sprawl or no growth? Kenny, a former county commissioner, wants to develop 1,025 acres of pasture into two-acre homesites, a "low-density, rural community." The land, between two I-95 interchanges and a relatively short commute to West Palm Beach, won't stay agricultural, Kenny argues. He says the project will bring construction jobs and a constituency -- owners of the $500,000 homes -- to fight against denser growth in Martin. He'll need county and state approval for the project, which he's calling Harmony.

Person to Watch: Bill Wallace, the prominent Palm Beach County Ford dealer who sold out to AutoNation, has been rebuilding in Stuart under the Lincoln-Mercury, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Volvo, Nissan and Mazda brands. He expects $100 million in sales this year and has tripled employment to 160.

Business to Watch: Vought Aircraft Industries, a major assembly subcontractor for Boeing and others, is shifting production from its 365-employee Perry, Ga., plant to Stuart, where it employs 325 and has a $19.2-million annual payroll. Half of the Perry staff elected to relocate, with most arriving in the summer.

Major Challenge: Balancing infrastructure improvements against fears that they will encourage more intensive growth.

Fort Pierce & St. Lucie County
Key Trend: For six years, Fort Pierce has poured $20 million into redeveloping its downtown. Sidewalks were widened. Landscaping was added. "The result is the city looks beautiful and business is booming," says Ramon Trias, Fort Pierce development director. Indeed, vacancies are low, with local restaurants and retailers filling buildings. The tax base has doubled, Trias reports. Now, he says, renewal is spreading into other areas while remaining roadwork is undertaken. And, he adds, developers are interested in putting housing downtown.

People to Watch: Port St. Lucie recently hired Greg Oravec, a South Miami community redeveloper, to manage community redevelopment. ... And Dean King, a Michigan investor, is settling on plans for the Fort Pierce port terminal he recently purchased from fruit marketer DNE Sales.

Business to Watch: BankAtlantic unit Core Communities, developer of the 4,600-acre St. Lucie West, this year will open the first phase of its 2,000-acre Westchester residential-commercial development to the south of St. Lucie West. That development, with 4,000 homes completed and 4,000 to go, will see a Home Depot and Wal-Mart supercenter open this year.

Major Challenges: Balancing fears of too much growth with a need to improve infrastructure; construction of east-west arteries.

Okeechobee County
Business to Watch: The Okeechobee Airport is constructing a business incubator building. Private interests, meanwhile, are building low-priced rental hangars, and the airport authority hopes to sell land for an avionics shop.

Tags: Treasure Coast

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