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Concerns over a couple of high-profile bankruptcies

Port St. Lucie/St. Lucie County

» The past year has been rough for Port St. Lucie. Digital Domain Media Group became the state’s worst economic development flop when it crumbled into bankruptcy in September and laid off 350 employees. The city had guaranteed the bond issue to pay for construction of Digital Domain’s 115,000-sq.-ft. studio building, leaving it on the hook for annual debt payments of $3.7 million unless it finds a new tenant for the building in the Tradition development just off Interstate 95. In February, Port St. Lucie took another hit when Liberty Medical Supply, the city’s largest private employer, filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 bankruptcy law. Liberty provides products and services for people with diabetes. The filing comes less than two months after Liberty announced it would lay off more than 200 of its 1,200 employees at the Treasure Coast facility. The fate of the rest of the employees is unclear.

» There are some positives. Martin Health System expects to open Tradition Medical Center in west Port St. Lucie by early 2014. The hospital will have 90 beds with the potential to expand to about 300. Nearby, Mann Research Center is building a 45,000-sq.-ft. medical office building, expected to be nearly fully leased when it opens in early 2014. It represents the first phase of a 22-acre medical office and life sciences complex. Both new developments are in the growing biotechnology cluster in the Florida Center for Innovation at Tradition. “If the market stays vibrant and the opportunities for IPOs stay steady, I think we will see some specialty pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies and probably warehouse distribution projects announced,” says Larry Pelton, president of the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County. Pelton says he has been encouraged by recent interest in St. Lucie County from manufacturing companies. “Our activity is the best it has been in several years.”

St. Lucie Population: 292,049
Population Growth Rate (2009-13): 1.58%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
18.11% 5.83% 22.39% 32.67% 21.01%
Per Capita Income: $32,450

MSA Dec. 2012 Dec. 2011 % Change Jobless Rate
Port St. Lucie 168,703 168,181 +0.3% 9.5%
Sebastian Inlet Vero Beach 58,784 57,577 +2.1% 9.1%
Source: Agency for Workforce Innovation

Homes - Single-family, existing-home sales
MSA 2013 Sales 1-Year Change 2013 Price 1-Year Change
Port St. Lucie 6,741 +16.2% $120,000 +5.3%
Vero Beach 2,351 +16.4% $138,700 +7.6%
Source: Florida Realtors

Stuart/Martin County

» Pro-growth and anti-growth sentiments are clashing again in Martin County. Three major development projects in rural Hobe Sound that required an extension of the urban services boundary triggered widespread public opposition. Some attribute the controversy to the new, no-growth makeup of the five-member Martin County Commission. After bringing their requests to the commission, the partners in the Harmony Ranch Development of Regional Impact pulled the plug on their plans for 4,000 houses and 2 million square feet of business space in March. The commissioners rejected two growth plan amendments for the Extreme Sports Water Ski Park and Hotel in July, effectively killing the project. However, the developer of Hobe Grove continues to push its proposal to build 4,300 homes and 4.5 million square feet of business and education space on agricultural land west of Florida’s Turnpike and south of Bridge Road. The developer paid almost $44 million for the 2,800-acre property in late 2011 and now awaits the results of a study on whether Martin County needs more housing.

» The area had been counting on American Energy Innovations in Stuart to boost its employment, but the company backed out of a $4-million deal with the state and Martin County because of problems with the wind and water turbine components it was manufacturing. Instead of making headway toward hiring 600 employees by 2015, the company laid off employees and changed its product line.

» Stuart’s economy will still get a boost from a new car dealership. Mario Murgado, CEO of Brickell Motors, a collection of south Florida auto dealerships, broke ground in October on an Audi and Infiniti dealership. It is expected to open by mid-2013.

Business to Watch

» H2Ocean: H2Ocean outgrew its Boynton Beach location and moved to Stuart in 2008. The manufacturer of all-natural sea salt health care products was named 2012 Small Business of the Year by the Business Development Board of Martin County. H2Ocean struck a deal with Walgreens to sell its skin and oral care products in 26 Treasure Coast locations. Prior, the company had been selling tattoo and piercing aftercare spray and moisturizer and other products through global distributors. The 30-employee company is in a 47,000-sq.-ft. facility driven by solar power. “It’s a progressive company that is very likely to keep on growing,” says Joe Catrambone, president of the Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce.

Martin Population: 150,150
Population Growth Rate (2009-13): 0.96%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
13.80% 5.02% 18.05% 34.38% 28.74%
Per Capita Income: $54,291

Vero Beach/Indian River County

» Real estate professionals say the inventory of oceanfront property is the lowest it has been in five years. “Buyers, particularly cash buyers, are coming back into the marketplace and taking down standing inventory,” says Michael Thorpe, co-owner of Sotheby’s International Realty. Indian River County’s building department says it is on pace to beat 2011 totals for new permits. The Windsor development has been described as a low-key version of glitzy Palm Beach. About 70% of the lots, which range from $400,000 to $2.6 million, have been sold, and a few new oceanfront lots have been put on the market. Resale listings now range from $1.2 million to $12 million, says Betsey Hanley, president of Windsor Real Estate.

» Meanwhile, the former Dodgertown, which had been the spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, now operates as the Vero Beach Sports Village. The complex has hosted high school baseball and softball spring training, youth baseball tournaments, umpire training and Nike Lacrosse Camps.

» Helene Caseltine, economic development director at the Indian River Chamber of Commerce, says the county has become a magnet for emerging technology companies. The most recent addition is SMI Telecoms, a U.K.-based computer software and services firm that selected Indian River County for its U.S. headquarters. Bridgevine, an e-commerce solution provider with longstanding roots in the community, is adding 25 jobs. Florida Organic Aquaculture will break ground this spring on a $13-million shrimp production and research facility in Fellsmere. The parent company, Mirzam Holdings based in Jupiter, estimates the new venture will create 52 jobs.

Business to Watch

» eMindful: The Vero Beach health care company markets its online classes to employers and insurers whose employees are trying to make behavioral changes that would help reduce health care costs. The classes help students to reduce stress and cut back on smoking, overeating, chemical dependency and other behaviors that contribute to chronic diseases. Kelley McCabe Ruff, a former chief technology officer for large investment banks, founded eMindful in 2008, partnering with researchers to create courses that allow students and instructors to interact.

Indian River Population: 142,705
Population Growth Rate (2009-13): 1.02%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
14.97% 5.34% 18.52% 32.49% 28.69%
Per Capita Income: $52,873

Okeechobee County

» Okeechobee County welcomed an Applebee’s last year and has attracted several new industrial developments this year. Joe Charles, founder of Charles Industries in Illinois and owner of Florida’s River Forest Yachting Centers in Stuart and LaBelle, opened an outdoor shooting range in Okeechobee last year. Now the company has purchased an industrial building in Okeechobee to expand its U.S. manufacturing operations. Charles Composites will be its first Florida manufacturing plant and will be used to make enclosures for telecommunication and utility applications. In addition, U.S. EcoGen will build one of three biomass plants in Okeechobee. In January, the company signed a contract with FPL and envisions growing a species of non-invasive eucalyptus and harvesting it as a source of renewable energy for FPL’s electric customers.

» Agribusiness remains the key economic driver in the county, says Terry Burroughs, Okeechobee Chamber of Commerce president. He says the chamber is focused on creating more manufacturing jobs for county residents.

Okeechobee Population: 40,456
Population Growth Rate (2009-13): 0.35%
Population by Age:
0-14 15-19 20-39 40-64 65+
20.08% 6.34% 25.66% 30.39% 17.54%
Per Capita Income: $30,988