Around the State- Southeast- June 2000
Fort Pierce was counting on using prime port land to boost tourism -- but the new owner has other plans.
By David Villano
With a gritty, industrial edge -- embodied by twin concrete silos rising on the banks of the Indian River -- Fort Pierce has never been much of a tourist stop. The city, though, is working to change: New restaurants, art galleries, a library and a marina have revitalized the downtown core, and much of the city's historic architecture is being restored. But a key component of the city's tourism growth plan is now in jeopardy.
Earlier this year, a Bahamian businessman quietly snapped up 67 acres downtown at the Port of Fort Pierce that had been owned by Watermark Communities Inc. City and county officials, caught off-guard by the sale, had been planning to buy the site on the Indian River and had, in fact, already begun touting it to developers as ideal for hotels, museums and other tourist attractions.
"It may sound dramatic, but many of us feel that the future of Fort Pierce is at stake," says Jeanne Hearn, a member of the St. Lucie Waterfront Council and a resident since 1948. "What happens at the port can move us forward, or it can hopelessly set us back."
Lloyd F. Bell Jr., an American citizen and longtime resident of Andros Island in the Bahamas, says he purchased the port property from WCI -- for a reported $5.5 million -- with the encouragement of the Bahamian government. Officials there, he says, offered him up to 50,000 acres of farmable land on Andros at a steep discount if he could secure low-cost, reliable port access in Florida for Bahamian-grown produce.
In Fort Pierce, his plans call for upgrading port facilities with gantry cranes and other equipment. He says he has no estimate on increased ship traffic. "Andros has never had a freeze," Bell gushes. "Can you imagine? We can become a force in winter vegetable production."
Expanding the port, however, isn't high on the city's wish list. In 1996, local officials adopted a draft plan for the 67-acre parcel calling for limited port operations on the south end and tourism development on the north end, with a center "flex" zone to accommodate future needs. The city and county had proposed purchasing the property and then spending another $10 million to $15 million for infrastructure upgrades. Voters endorsed the plan two years later in a nonbinding straw vote.
How Bell's port plan may fit into the city's vision for a waterfront tourist mecca is unclear. While Bell says the property is large enough to accommodate both shipping and tourism, many residents are skeptical. "We hope Mr. Bell's intentions are to follow the (city's development) plan, but right now we're just waiting," says Fort Pierce City Administrator Dennis Beach. Meanwhile, Beach adds, the city and county are studying the possibility of buying the property.
Environmental concerns also are mounting. The Environmental Protection Agency often calls the Indian River Lagoon the most biologically diverse estuary in North America. In November, Washington, D.C.-based Scenic America, citing the potential for expansion at the Fort Pierce port, named the Indian River Lagoon one of 12 "Last Chance Landscapes" in the U.S.
In the News
Broward -- The nation's first South Africa USA Chamber of Commerce has opened in Fort Lauderdale. Chamber officials say the city was chosen because of its importance as a beachhead for South Africans doing business in the U.S. About 50 members have signed on.
Corla Gables -- Ground has been broken on the Village of Merrick Park, the controversial mixed-use entertainment mall being developed by Baltimore-based Rouse Co. The 20-acre project, which will include Nordstrom, Neiman-Marcus and other upscale tenants, is opposed by merchants who fear it will siphon shoppers from the nearby Miracle Mile retail district.
Jupiter -- To consolidate its headquarters and research laboratories, Surface Chemists of Florida has broken ground on a 6,200-sq.-ft. facility at Jupiter Commerce Park. Completion is scheduled for September. The company, which provides research and development services to the chemical industry, expects to double its current workforce of seven by the end of the year.
Miami-Dade -- More than 150,000 visitors to the Miami area are expected June 6-10 for the first U.S. stop of Operation Sail's fleet of classic tall ships. The event's six-week tour includes six other East Coast stops. The total economic impact of the visit is expected to exceed $42 million -- about $29 million in visitor spending and $13 million in ship and crew expenditures.
Pleading guilty to five federal charges stemming from a fiery crash of a DC-8 cargo plane at Miami International Airport, Miami-based Fine Air Services and its subsidiary, Aeromar Airlines, agreed to pay a $5-million penalty and implement a series of safety measures. Five were killed in the 1997 crash.
Amid a cascade of controversial contracts and corruption charges, Miami International Airport Director Gary Dellapa has announced he will leave his post as soon as his replacement can be found. The airport, in the middle of a $5.3-billion expansion, has been rocked in recent months by reports of no-bid construction contracts, unnecessary expenditures and charges of influence peddling.
CHS Electronics (Nasdaq-CHSW) has filed for bankruptcy protection as a part of a plan to return the once high-flying computer equipment distributor to profitability. A little more than a year ago, CHS ranked 189th on the Fortune 500, with 1998 sales of $11 billion. Accounting irregularities and other allegations of mismanagement prompted a federal investigation, causing its stock to tumble from a 52-week high of $5.93 to about 16 cents a share now.
Arista.com, a business-to-business company for Latin American customers, will move its headquarters from San Francisco to downtown Miami's Brickell Avenue. The move is expected to create up to 30 jobs.
Monroe County -- The state Legislature has approved bills calling for two incorporation referendums in the Florida Keys. Voters in Big Pine, No Name, Cudjoe, Ramrod, Summerland and Torch Keys are expected to decide in November whether to separate from the county, forming their own municipal government. Voters in Marathon approved a similar referendum last fall.
Palm Beach Gardens -- Allegations of mismanagement continue to plague Palm Beach Gardens-based Wackenhut Corrections Corp.'s (NYSE-WHC) private-prison division following reports of abuse at its Jena, La., Juvenile Justice Center. A year ago, Texas prison authorities terminated the company's contract to operate a nonviolent prisoner facility in East Austin.