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.
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