Hitting Pay Dirt
The state's orchid growers say business is flowering to a record level despite the economic slowdown.
By Pat Dunnigan
As their counterparts in other Florida businesses stew over gloomy economic forecasts, at least one local industry is feeling a little smug. That's only natural when demand consistently outpaces supply and your customers tend to be wealthy or obsessed, sometimes both.
Such are the enviable circumstances of the state's orchid growers, who cater
to a growing population of enthusiasts not expected to let war, recession or inconvenient travel conditions get in the way of their devotion to the ancient family of flowering plants known as Orchidaceae. Statewide, orchids are produced in south and central Florida, including Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando and Kissimmee, with Homestead being the state's largest producer.
Figures released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in late summer show that the country's potted orchid sales overtook chrysanthemums last year, with $100 million in wholesale sales. That's a 21% increase over 1999. Florida sales were $37.2 million.
And so it was with good timing that the American Orchid Society opened its new headquarters and $8-million international orchid center in Delray Beach earlier this year.
Andy Easton, the society's director of education and orchid operations, says all indications are that the market will surpass itself again this year, eventually toppling poinsettias from their position as the country's best-selling potted flower.
"It's been really a continuation of a trend we've seen over the past 10 years," Easton says. Sales are "maintaining and even slightly increasing" the rate of growth.
Easton attributes that partly to more effective orchid production techniques that have brought down the price of plants. The process is still tedious, however, and the plants take a minimum of three years to go from seedling to market.
As a result, the demand virtually always exceeds supply; the orchid-obsessed are kept in a constant state of longing that has, in the past, produced thefts, skullduggery and even violence. "You don't see the same passion in the African Violet Society," Easton says. The orchid market has repeatedly proved its resilience in the face of difficult economic times, even during the Great Depression, he says.
Woody Robbins, who with his wife, Kathleen, operates Miramar Orchids in Lake Worth, says his sales are also up, while his wholesalers are telling him their customers have sold out at least through Christmas. Still, he says his business could be pinched if too many of Florida's wealthy winter visitors decide to stay home.
In Delray Beach, Turtle Pond Nursery owner Terry Chemtov says a slumping economy will not be a factor in his orchid business. "We've chosen not to participate in the downturn."
In the News
Boca Raton -- Florida Atlantic University's technology business incubator has signed two new startups: Forseti Biosciences will conduct human genome research, and Neu Media Technologies will operate an application service provider.
Voice recognition software maker VoiceFlash Networks (Nasdaq-VFNX) is acquiring United Capturdyne Technologies, a Fort Lauderdale business software maker.
Boynton Beach -- Boynton officials are taking their marketing efforts across a wide spectrum, with an interactive CD-ROM, a series of cable television commercials that will air in northern markets, and even a line of underwear featuring the city logo.
Fort Lauderdale -- Developer Daniel J. Melk of Luxury Resorts International has announced plans to build a 15-story, 123-unit hotel condominium on North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard. Groundbreaking is scheduled for early next year.
A shuttered shopping center at Broward Boulevard and I-95 will be redeveloped as an office park under a plan approved by city commissioners in October. The office park is the proposal of developer Broward Barron Inc., whose pitch beat out a competing project that would have combined office space with residential development.
Broward County commissioners say they have pared their legislative wish list to the essentials: $18.35 million for improved security at Port Everglades, $1 million for a people-mover at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, $12 million for road improvements and $2.4 million for efforts to control beach erosion.
Fort Pierce -- Conkling & Lewis Construction has been hired to oversee the $7.2-million Sunrise Theatre renovation. The project is expected to be complete late next year.
Hollywood -- A federal judge has dismissed the civil-rights lawsuit of the city's former risk manager. Gary Hakanson, fired last year, claims his due-process rights were violated.
Tropical Leisure Resorts has acquired Ambassador Casino Cruises in a stock swap. The company plans to operate a casino cruise ship out of Broward County.
The Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa will go forward with plans to hire 1,000 employees for its opening on Jan. 10, despite an economic downturn that is causing layoffs at other hotels. The 1,000-room resort, which closed in 1991 after a long history as one of south Florida's showcase hotels, has been plagued by construction delays and cost overruns since construction began in 1998.
Margate -- Broward School Board members had a severe case of buyer's remorse following the purchase of a $2.3-million elementary school site on land not zoned for a school. School board members bought the property in May with the expectation that Margate city officials would rezone it. But after the board refused to guarantee in writing that the school would relieve overcrowding at Margate Elementary, city commissioners voted against the rezoning. A rehearing is scheduled for January.
Palm Beach -- Developer Gordon Deckelbaum, of Premier Palm Beach Ltd., has announced plans to build 30 luxury condominiums on South Ocean Boulevard. The project is described as Palm Beach's first oceanfront, multi-family development in over a decade. Construction is expected to begin next summer.
The Breakers Hotel of Palm Beach and The Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach have both reported layoffs. A manager at The Breakers put the number of layoffs at 150, or about 6% of its 2,500-member staff. A manager at the Ritz-Carlton would not reveal the specific number but says the layoffs are in addition to reduced hours for the hotel's remaining 450 employees.
Weston -- New Realty Investments has opened a six-story, 128-suite AmeriSuites hotel, which will be operated by Prime Hospitality under a 20-year franchise agreement. The hotel is the third AmeriSuites location in the Fort Lauderdale area.
Miami officials have a plan to pump life into downtown once the workday ends.
By David Villano
By day, downtown Miami's central business district bustles with life. Office workers from the county and federal courthouses, the government center, Miami-Dade Community College and the area's high-rise office towers crowd the restaurants and shops that line the city's narrow streets. But by night, as workers return home to the suburban communities that house many of Miami-Dade's 2 million residents, the district resembles a ghost town.
"You can fire a cannon down the middle of the street at 6 p.m. and not hit anybody," says Mark Lunt, a real estate analyst with Ernst & Young's Miami office.
But that may soon change. Last September, work began on a $12-million revitalization project that will widen and repave sidewalks to allow outdoor cafes and will convert Flagler Street, at the heart of the district, into a two-way road. Planners hope to create a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare that attracts visitors well into the evening.
The Downtown Development Authority also is working with two of downtown Miami's largest commercial property owners -- Sergio Rok and Rafael Kapustin ["City Slickers," August 2001] -- to convert an aging office building into a 90-unit condominium. Prices will start at a modest $100,000. It will be the first residential tower ever built in the central business district. If successful, the pair will add a 200-unit tower next door.
For years the death-after-dark syndrome plaguing downtown Miami has befuddled city planners. In the early 1980s, officials promised that the Rouse Co.'s massive Bayside Marketplace -- situated on a choice parcel of public green space where Flagler Street meets Biscayne Bay -- would fuel a downtown housing market for working-class professionals. It didn't. Other projects such as the Miami Arena and the AmericanAirlines Arena held out the same promise.
"Miami is not like other great American cities that are active 24 hours a day," says Patty Allen, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. "At 5 o'clock everybody goes home. We're more of an eight-hour city."
In fairness, downtown Miami has never been a place where people live, work and play all within walking distances. During the building boom of the 1920s, downtown Miami was designated a high-density commercial district. With residents filling the suburbs where land was cheap, plentiful and unburdened by zoning codes, an urban housing market never developed. Even today, Allen says, only 262 residential units exist within the central business district despite a daily influx of more than 100,000 workers.
But with Miami-Dade traffic among the nation's worst and with zoning laws that encourage infill, the lure of urban living is growing. A recent study shows that demand for mid-priced housing downtown exceeds 3,000 units.
Lunt believes that number will rise dramatically: "If Miami wants to be mentioned in the same sentence as New York, Chicago or San Francisco, we need to be a city that stays alive day and night. Things will change because they have to. People are finally realizing that."
In the News
Hialeah -- Eager to tap into the growing Hispanic TV market, media giant NBC will acquire Hialeah-based Telemundo Communications Group in a deal worth about $2.7 billion -- $1.98 billion in cash and $700,000 in assumed debt. Telemundo's holdings include the nation's second-largest Spanish-language broadcast network, two cable channels and 10 TV stations.
Key West -- After suffering through years of periodic beach closings because of a leaky, over-taxed sewage system, Key West has completed a $6.2-million overhaul of its wastewater treatment plant. Additionally, the city has brought on line a new $4.6-million deep-well injection site for the disposal of treated wastewater. Until now wastewater had been pumped offshore.
Miami -- Following a 10-month grand jury investigation, federal prosecutors have charged 13 Miami police officers with planting guns and concocting elaborate cover-up schemes to protect fellow officers. Prosecutors say the officers used "throw down guns" to justify shooting unarmed suspects. The investigation centered around four shootings, three of which were fatal.
In an effort to boost its balance sheet before being spun off by British parent Diageo, Burger King has acquired the franchise rights for 30 Florida restaurants. While overall sales worldwide have been sluggish for Burger King, the Florida market has remained stable.
Miami-Dade -- American Airlines has furloughed 110 Miami-based pilots. Miami is the airline's third-largest pilot domicile, with about 1,800.
The Miami-Dade metropolitan area topped the nation in international migration as a percentage of total population from 1990 to 1999. According to the figures, compiled by the Center for Social and Urban Research using Census data, 15.5% of Miami-Dade's 2.17 million residents arrived from overseas during the last decade. New York ranked second with 11.2%.
Broward-based Nova Southeastern University has opened a branch campus in Kendall, its fifth in south Florida. With 18,000 students, Nova Southeastern is the largest independent, not-for-profit university in the Southeastern U.S.
Royal Caribbean International (NYSE-RCL) has laid off 400 workers and eliminated 100 open positions in response to sharp declines in the cruise industry. The layoffs, all in south Florida, represent about 15% of the company's total workforce. Meanwhile, cruise ship operator American Classic Voyages will try to reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after bookings dropped as much as 50% following the Sept. 11 attacks. The company, which has struggled financially much of the past year, has laid off most of its 100 employees at its Miami headquarters.
After being ordered to pay $41 million to settle a dispute with computer maker Gateway, Vitech America has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Vitech distributes computers in Brazil and other Latin American countries.
Monroe -- An advisory council to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has voted to recommend a ban on personal watercraft in most waters off the Florida Keys. Supporters of the ban say the watercraft pose safety risks, damage the environment and produce excessive noise. Gov. Jeb Bush will have final say on the recommendation late next year, following public input and agency review.
MIAMI BEACH -- One of the region's most recognizable homes, the opulent Ocean Drive mansion built by fashion designer Gianni Versace, is being converted to an ultra-high-end hotel and restaurant. Room rates will range from $2,000 to $6,000 per night.
Versace was gunned down on the steps of the sprawling residence in 1997. The home is owned by North Carolina telecommunications tycoon Peter Loftin, who purchased the mansion for $19 million in September 2000.