Updated 12 months ago
Residents typically are delighted to call this unique, culturally rich city their home and show up at town meetings to say so. The model for West Palm, a city of 82,000, is somewhat Parisian, where renovated old buildings are woven in with the new. The goal, as one local businessman put it, is to be the greatest midsize city in America so that in another few years even swanky Palm Beach may come begging to be annexed. The city soon will have two new interchanges, one off the Florida Turnpike and one off I-95 at Okeechobee Boulevard, feeding into downtown.
West Palm Beach's CityPlace project has placed it on the cutting edge of urban redevelopment. The $375-million, 70-plus-acre city center -- initially featuring retail space, restaurants, a 20-screen cinema and more than 600 residential dwellings, including work/live lofts and townhouses -- opens in October and is already nearly 90% leased or committed.
CityPlace isn't the only thing happening, says Dennis Grady, president, Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches. The completion of CityPlace will coincide with the opening by Renaissance Partners of a $60-million pair of five-story, mixed-use buildings on the North Clematis Street waterfront, one surrounded by a 500-car parking garage. Office space is 90% leased; retail space is 70% reserved.
Opening in the fall is Renaissance Partners' Hotel Clematis, a five-story, 64-room European boutique hotel. About the same time, Miami-based American Land Housing Group will begin construction of The Strand, a 15-story high-rise apartment complex where rent will average about $1,750. A few blocks away, NBC affiliate WPTV News Channel 5 opens a new $20-million facility this year. Across from CityPlace, a new county convention center is in the works, and plans call for construction of a 1,500-seat opera house, to complement the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts down the street.
Downtown, between historic Clematis Street and CityPlace, a new City Hall is slated to emerge as part of a $13-million-plus plaza that will also include retail space and housing, says Daniel Cary, director of planning. Within walking distance will be a pricey, mostly privately funded multi-sensory media center where, for example, people looking for books on art also will be able to see gallery exhibits and artists at work. The current City Hall, one block away, will be sold and renovated for offices and housing.
People to Watch
Lynda Harris, land-use attorney with the statewide law firm of Carlton Fields, is keeping CityPlace and other high-profile developments in the city on track.
Paul Corts, president of Palm Beach Atlantic College, has been instrumental in attracting more and better students to this small Christian institution as well as making plans for more classroom space, a $7.5-million music hall and a 450-seat chapel.
Businesses to Watch
Florida Crystals, a manufacturer of food products and the nation's only grower of organically certified sugar, produces enough electricity from farm by-products to light up 45,000 homes and supply its own electric needs. The transition into a more consumer-friendly company continues, as does the search for a place to consolidate its headquarters.
Big Time Restaurants has grown in seven years to comprise five locations and 375 employees. This year it will add new restaurants in Delray Beach, Tampa and West Palm Beach and employ an additional 250. The company reports that it expects revenues to jump by at least 50%.
Wages are about 11% higher than the statewide average. Still, investment income and transfer payments, such as Social Security and Medicare, account for a bit more than 50% of all personal income, compared with a statewide average of about 40%. Homes sell for a median price of about $139,000. A two-bedroom apartment or condo rents for about $750 to $775 monthly.
Boca Raton: On the "Internet Coast"
Boca Raton's median household income doubles the rest of the U.S., giving the city the affluence of Palm Beach, but with more year-round residents, more schools and a greater sense of community. Boca (pop. 70,000) is a well-kept city, with more open space than most comparably sized communities. It's also a shopping and dining mecca.
In part Boca owes such qualities to its status as an entrepreneurial hot spot where many successful firms got their start. High-tech firms, ranging from software manufacturers to web designers, flock here. Among the more than 200 technology firms in Boca Raton are paperless office facilitator CyLex Systems and e-commerce-without-a-computer company NetByTel.
Boca companies joined thousands of their dot-com peers in Broward and Miami-Dade counties last summer in branding the region the Internet Coast. One of the group's goals is to increase the number of knowledge-based workers in south Florida. That includes retaining top area technical school graduates often lured away to opportunity-rich Silicon Valley, says Jeff Kline, CEO and president of e-business specialist Accris Corp. The companies also will work with area universities and K-12 schools to grow their own workforce. Other goals: Increase the number of venture capital firms and the bandwidth for high-speed Internet connections via establishment of a network access point in the area.
High-tech firms know Boca for its respected international address, CEO-pleasing quality of life and the Blue Lake Corporate Office Center, birthplace of the IBM PC and current home to Verio, a leading Internet-hosting company. Blue Lake amenities include uninterrupted electrical standby power and two sonic fiber optic rings around the property for speedy and reliable web connections. Lease rates are also the cheapest in the region. The 1.8-million-sq.-ft. complex is about two-thirds occupied, and leases are being negotiated on the remaining built-to-suit space, according to Mark Guzzetta, one of the development partners. "Everyone we talk to now is almost exclusively Internet-related or a computer peripheral systems manufacturer."
The most recent newcomer is Cenetec.com, an incubator for Internet startup firms launched in February by a venture capital group that includes Hiway Technologies co-founder Scott Adams. In exchange for an equity share, the incubator provides office space, professional services, infrastructure and venture capital for up to 50 companies annually at a 25,000-sq.-ft. building at Blue Lake, according to Adams.
E-businesses also will be major tenants of two newly dedicated buildings at Florida Atlantic University Research Park, already providing about 2,000 well-paying jobs in 358,000 square feet of space. A high-tech incubator that provides startups with free space and university support, the park was 84% filled after two weeks of operation. Businesses get the benefits of university-based research and resources; professors and students get experience as consultants and interns. The final stage of growth for the 52-acre park will likely come from both e-businesses and biomedical firms, says Executive Director Scott Ellington. A biotech center opens this fall; a premedical program starting next year will add 125 medical doctors to the university staff.
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Anthony Catanese, business-minded president of rapidly growing Florida Atlantic University, has been instrumental in building a $32-million campus-based research program and creating a not-for-profit corporation that sells patents and rights to university inventions and technology.
Dave Gury, president/ chairman/CEO of Nabi, is overseeing soon-to-be-completed studies on a vaccine that could at least triple the size of his biopharmaceutical company. And, as chairman of industry advocacy group Bio Florida, Gury is continuing efforts to improve the state's environment for other healthcare firms.
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Daleen Technologies Inc., a provider of customer management and billing software with 425 employees, went public last October, and analysts' estimates call for sales to more than double to $45 million this year, fueled by continued strength in North America, expansion in South America and the launch of operations in Europe.
Sunbeam Corp., the consumer products company, looks to rebound from past losses with the help of a growth-obsessed leadership team and a new division that produces Internet-ready smart appliances and will license the technology that allows products to talk to each other without wires or special programming.
While waterfront and country club estates drive the median housing price above $150,000, there are plenty of condos available in every price range, and family homes just outside city limits are selling for as little as $33,000. Hardest to find are houses in the $150,000 to $400,000 bracket. Two-bedroom apartments and condos rent for a median of about $850 monthly.
Among cities with populations of more than 40,000, Boca's tax millage rate -- 3.02750 in 1998 -- is the fourth-lowest after Lakeland, Bradenton and Sarasota.
Fort Pierce: Downtown Renaissance
Local civil engineer J.P. Butch Terpening will break ground by winter 2001 on the first residential project downtown Fort Pierce (pop. 38,000) has seen in 35 years. The five-story condominium complex, at the base of South Bridge, will have parking below and retail on the ground floor with about 45 units priced between $160,000 and $175,000. Although he hasn't marketed the project, dozens of people have been phoning in for information.
Never mind that downtown Fort Pierce still has quite a few commercial vacancies and no grocery store, drugstore or doctor's office. It's ready for living quarters, says Assistant State Attorney Ellen Mancini, who would be among the first to move into the city's center fronting the Indian River lagoon.
A survey by Main Street Fort Pierce indicates that many business owners and employees of downtown merchants share Mancini's view, which could encourage residential building downtown and provide a built-in customer base for new and existing retailers and eateries. About 1,500 people work in the downtown area on an average day.
Tourism draws include the manatee center, Backus Gallery, restored historic buildings and retail shops. A revitalized City Marina wants to increase by 10% its 10,000 lineal feet of dock space to accommodate higher boat traffic and larger vessels. On the other hand, a decade-long renovation of the 1923-vintage Sunrise Theater, which could bring tens of thousands of people downtown, is still millions of dollars short of completion, and land next to a nearby deep-water cargo port remains vacant. Bonita Springs-based WCI Communities Inc. has put the parcel up for sale, and the city envisions a waterfront commercial district, according to City Manager Dennis Beach.
A $180-million package of improvements to the city's 100-year-old infrastructure is under way, Beach says. Most of the schools have been completely rebuilt, including a recently restored 1905 building housing the Fort Pierce Magnet School of the Performing Arts.
Residents of Fort Pierce take pride in their city's intellectual resources, including a community college and oceanographic institution, and many have fallen in love with the downtown waterfront.
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Pastor Kenny Mills, the tireless head of the Bible Way Soul Saving Station, is embarking on a $750,000 campaign to raise funds for a new inner-city private school. The school will be an extension of his Save the Children outreach ministry program, which has provided tutoring, recreation and minority history lessons to thousands of underprivileged children over the past decade.
Eddie Enns, the no-nonsense mayor who holds monthly coffee klatches to talk up positive happenings in Fort Pierce, is generally loved for his sense of humor, sincerity and ability to get people working together.
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Windward Properties, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based mall redeveloper, recently purchased the near-vacant Orange Blossom Mall for $5 million and plans to turn it into a European-style commerce center for corporate offices, call centers and perhaps the local school board. Amenities may include daycare and some retail, while 16 adjacent acres could see a multiplex theatre or multi-family housing.
An architect hasn't yet been selected, but development company Marina Square Ltd. expects to break ground this year on a $30-million-plus mixed-use complex on two-and-a-half acres at the city marina.
Wages in the county are about 15% lower than the statewide average. The median home price is $65,000, although properties range from $12,000 to $335,000. Two-bedroom apartments go for a median monthly rent of about $475.
Mirroring national figures, the number of serious and violent crimes in Fort Pierce has fallen by one-third over the past two years, from 5,921 in 1997 to a preliminary count of 3,926 in 1999.
Vero Beach: Connecting the Dots
Slow-growing Vero Beach (pop. 17,800) is picky about what development it allows. Residents quietly enjoy their city's clean beaches, low-rise ocean view, manicured medians and small-town flavor, fearful that boasting about it will attract more tourists. Yet development of three main commercial zones continues.
Oceanside retailers, with their specialty boutiques and SunSet Saturday Night music festivals, now have the draw of a newly expanded Center for the Arts -- the state's largest museum-based school.
The central city commercial district's recently completed Three Avenues project, delayed for months, is drawing a mix of restaurants, professional offices and retail stores. By year's end, the area could see development of a waterfront park featuring wide pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths, a 50-foot fountain, and tile and mosaic artwork depicting Vero Beach's history and environment. The $7-million project should spur private development and significantly increase property values, says Vero Beach City Manager Rex Taylor.
Downtown, meanwhile, stages monthly street parties amid spruced-up storefronts. An old, city-owned diesel power plant may be restored to accommodate shops and offices or incorporated into a grandiose, $20-million hotel-cinema-restaurant complex. "Downtown really has blossomed," says Milt Thomas, economic development director, Indian River County Chamber of Commerce. "In 1990, you could shoot a cannon down 14th Avenue and not need liability insurance. It's 86% occupied now."
The main need now is to increase foot traffic, according to Vero Beach's Downtown Manager Jim Chrulski. If he gets his way, the city council will step in with park improvements, streetscaping and sidewalks along 14th Avenue and beautification of State Road 60. The next step, he says, will be to link the city's three commercial areas by trolley and tours.
Other issues include beach erosion and diversifying the employment base. The city is pretty well built out. Taylor's looking for economic development planning at the county level in the form of financial assistance for relocating businesses, new telecommunications infrastructure, workforce training in high-tech fields and perhaps a small private college.
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Penny Chandler, energetic and politically astute executive director, Indian River Chamber of Commerce, helped build an award-winning website, fast-tracked NASA technology transfers to the private sector and is pushing for consolidation of economic development efforts regionally.
Since opening Home Instead Senior Care a year ago, Donald Loftus has hired 37 employees, a number he expects to at least double by year's end. He recently became executive director of the local hospital district and must soothe the rocky relations between those who fund and those who run Indian River Memorial Hospital.
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Manufacturer New Piper Aircraft Corp. will add 200 jobs as sales skyrocket nearly 40% this year, to $200 million, thanks largely to a new $1.37-million turboprop and victory in bidding battles with Cessna for training aircraft.
Faux Effects manufactures art supplies and decorative paints. Revenues from product sales and the company's nationwide network of licensed training centers approached $5 million last year. Sales are expected to double in the next 18 months.
The jobless rate in Indian River County is nearly twice the statewide average, and wages trail by about 14%, but per capita personal income is 40% higher than average because so many residents, especially retirees, receive substantial income from investments. Investment income accounts for 44.7% of the county's total compared to 22.7% statewide. Median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is about $650, but the supply is slim at all price points. The median housing price is $230,000 beachside and $78,100 on the mainland, but there's a steady supply of $49,000 fixer-uppers.
Job growth is the big story in Palm Beach County. A pair of United Technologies companies reversed plans to move out of a shared manufacturing campus in Palm Beach Gardens. Pratt & Whitney will retain 1,600 of 4,000 jobs and bring in 500 new employees with average salaries of $70,000, according to Business Development Board President Larry Pelton. Pratt & Whitney will also enlarge its rocket-testing operations with $75 million in capital improvements.
Sikorsky Aircraft is keeping all 300 jobs in the county, including 100 for commercial retrofitting operations now performed off-site. AutoNation is expected to bring its leasing division headquarters and 700 jobs to Boca. And an expansion of the Seagram Co.'s North American service center in Delray Beach will add another 100 jobs.
On the academic side, a year-old committee of educators and businesspeople recently produced an MTV-like video for middle and high school students that stresses the importance in the workplace of basic skills and a good attitude. Companies have volunteered to mentor teachers and guidance counselors and accept interns. Palm Beach Community College, meanwhile, will seek $10 million in state funding to expand its facilities for 31 post-secondary adult vocational programs come July. New England Tech just completed a $12-million expansion providing 65,000 square feet of space for new classrooms and a professional development center where instructors will partner with the business community.
In the county's $1.2-billion agriculture sector, winter vegetable growers fared relatively well this season. Overall crop volume has been down modestly.
Business to Watch
Using high-capacity optical transmission technologies, Boca-based Qtera Corp. soon will begin delivering bandwidth to long-distance and Internet service providers, allowing them to transmit information and voice data faster and farther over their existing systems, says Rick Klotz, vice president of human resources. In January, the 2-year-old firm was bought by publicly traded, Ottawa-based Nortel Network for $3.25 billion. Qtera offices will move into a new, three-story building in the Arvida Park of Commerce, freeing up space next door for manufacturing and product support services. The company employs 150 in Boca, a number that is expected to double this year.
Martin, St. Lucie
Martin County landed its first production-line boat building facility owned by Dakota Yachts, and an avionics repair operation, East Coast Jet Center, that is the world's largest distributor of the new, French-made corporate jet Sino Swearingen. Both firms occupy space opened up at a downsized Northrop Grumman.
Indian River Community College will open a high-tech incubator facility with space for 14 web-based business startups. The city of Stuart will develop an anchorage with moorings, a ship store and a pump-out station for boaters, who now drop anchor in a cove and pump sewage into the St. Lucie River. Plans are in place for redevelopment of unused space between the river and railroad tracks near City Hall for a retail/commercial center.
In St. Lucie County, TV-shopping network QVC hired 800 people for its $12-million call center in Port St. Lucie, with plans to add another 800 within the next two years. Expansion-minded telemarketer PolyMedica, operating as Liberty Medical Supply, is rehabilitating a 65,000-sq.-ft. building here and moving about 500 jobs from a pair of sites in Martin County. At the 2,400-acre PGA Village project, where a third golf course has been built, a PGA golf learning center is under way, and homes and hotels are joining robust commercial development nearby. With the opening of a $21.5-million joint Indian River Community College/Florida Atlantic University campus at St. Lucie West in 2001, nine new four-year degree programs will be added.
A decline in grapefruit acreage is improving returns for growers, and all agricultural sectors are poised to benefit from an expanding high-tech research cluster. Depending on a Florida Supreme Court ruling, a pair of merchant power plants could settle here, pumping up to a half-billion dollars into the local tax base. Countering the good news is an ongoing property valuation dispute with utility holding company Florida Power & Light, turf battles between Fort Pierce and fast-growing Port St. Lucie over the location of public institutions, and a paucity of good-paying jobs.
Business to Watch
Capitalizing on the popularity of exotic tours for the budget-minded, Big Five Tours and Expeditions has seen revenues rise 30% to 35% annually. Through a new $1.3-million world headquarters in Stuart, and a dozen outside sales agents from Georgia to California, the company orchestrates everything from elephant pack safaris through the African wild to polar bear tracking expeditions in Manitoba. This year will see the addition of tours to Ethiopia and focus on an e-commerce strategy that could nearly double employees to 30 by year's end, according to Executive Vice President Sunit Sanghrajka.
Indian River, Okeechobee
A proposed $500-million natural gas power plant in Indian River County could create competition on the wholesale level in a market long dominated by FPL. The 1,080-megawatt plant would add more than 300 jobs during a two-year construction phase and 25 full-time jobs upon completion in 2003. It would also provide a low-cost source of electricity for in-state power companies and could ultimately exert downward pressure on retail energy prices in the region, which are among the highest in the nation. Local chamber of commerce officials say the project, near Interstate 95, could help justify building a long-wanted interchange that would make the area more appealing to industrial firms. Further north, a 79-acre sports complex is on the drawing board for this fall near the Prime Outlets mall.
Rural Okeechobee County continues to have trouble attracting attention. There have been no new tenants at an aging, untidy industrial park for several years, and concern is mounting that vital bass fishing and tourism dollars will be lost if phosphorous-polluted Lake Okeechobee isn't cleaned up soon. Ongoing improvements at the airport have increased general aviation traffic, and a new, 33-employee fish farm is utilizing water-recycling technology that may have applications in the dairy business.
Business to Watch
Sebastian-based eMerge Interactive has created an online auction farm and Internet-based business management tools for the nation's $40-billion cattle industry. The firm, founded by technology-hatching company XL Vision in 1994, saw gross revenues skyrocket from $600,000 to $25.4 million between the first and fourth quarters of 1999. Profits will come as information services and e-commerce offerings are expanded, he says. About $120 million in capital was raised by an IPO in February. The decision now is whether to build a permanent facility in Sebastian, where half of the company's 100 employees are based, or relocate to Melbourne.