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Port St. Lucie builds beyond biotech

Port St. Lucie / St. Lucie County

On the heels of a year marked by the bankruptcies of companies once considered key economic players — Digital Domain Media Group and Liberty Medical Supply — Port St. Lucie is again attracting development interest and activity. A Bass Pro Shops Sportsman's Center opened in October and, in November, the national online real estate brokerage Movoto.com named Port St. Lucie No. 1 on its list of "the 10 best cities in Florida" based on its low crime rate, cost of living, housing, schools and access to amenities.

In January, Pete Tesch became president of the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County, replacing Larry Pelton, who retired after eight years at that post. Formerly president and CEO of Ocala / Marion County Economic Development Corp., Tesch plans to build on the biotech nucleus already in place at the 150-acre Tradition Center for Innovation campus while attracting new business and working with existing companies to grow facilities and jobs.

Tradition Medical Center / Mann Research Center: Opened within a month of each other, the two centers add clout to the growing life sciences cluster at Tradition Center that includes Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies and VGTI Florida.Opened in mid-December, Martin Health System's Tradition Medical Center is a 201,184-sq.-ft. acute-care hospital offering 90 beds with the potential for at least 200 more. Attached to it is Mann Medical One, a 45,000-sq.- ft. Medical office building opened in late January that represents the beginning of a planned 22-acre Mann Research complex of offices and research facilities. Tesch calls the additions "drivers for economic development" in Port St. Lucie. "Their opening says a lot about the general state of our economy. In terms of impact, everything else at this time pales in comparison."

Stuart / Martin County

Now that Indiantown has been designated an Enterprise Zone, interest is growing in retail and industrial development in the largely rural area.New arrivals include a medical center, McDonald's and Dollar General. Dunkin' Donuts announced plans to open a store.Says Tim Dougher, Business Development Board of Martin County executive director, "Once you get these kinds of movements, others come around. Employers like to know that their people have easy access to shopping, restaurants and medical care."

Completion of the long-anticipated Veterans Memorial Bridge connecting Stuart with Palm City and providing a direct route to Florida's Turnpike and U.S. 1 is another boost. "Highways are drivers of economic development," says Dougher. "They get people and products in and out. If a bridge opens and your commute just went from 20 minutes to eight, it's a very big deal."

Vero Beach / Indian River County

Jobs are returning to the county. "Our manufacturers are in hiring mode," says Helene Caseltine, economic development director at the Indian River Chamber of Commerce, "and as a result, our unemployment rate is down. It's still higher than we'd like, but compared to two years ago when it was double digits, we're glad to see it at 7.1%." She cites tourism as one example of an industry on the upswing."Typically, unemployment in our tourist industry would skyrocket in summer. Not so much anymore. Our hotels reported 80% occupancy all summer, the best since before the hurricane in 2004."

Another positive sign: The housing market. Single-family homes are selling again, and for higher-than-expected rates. Homes priced at the countywide average of $250,000 have sold recently for as high as $280,000, says Caseltine, and the buyers are no longer investors looking to turn the property for a quick buck. "We had a lot of flipping going on before; now, we're seeing more occupant owners."

Island Boats: Founded by a father and son, Island Boats manufactures and sells an industry first: Pontoon boats that can retract a 10-foot beam to 7 feet 4 inches at the flip of a switch so they ft on standard-sized boat trailers for transport and into garages for storage. The retractable pontoons are the brainchild of Ralph Poppell, a former Florida legislator who, together with son Tim, owns and operates Float-On Corp., a Vero Beach-based manufacturer of saltwater boat trailers since 1968. "This was all based on the idea of selling more boat trailers," says Ralph. "With every boat, we sell a trailer. This helps Float-On's business too." The Poppells hired marine engineer Jeff Seyler to refine their product and begin the patent process. Barely a year after Ralph conceived the idea, Island Boats unveiled its first retractable pontoon boats in 18- and 22-foot lengths at the February 2014 Miami International Boat Show with the slo-Gan "Expand your own island, just add water." Plans call for additional models and 45 new employees to accommodate growth over the next three years.

Okeechobee County

Three transportation projects will improve Okeechobee's accessibility, says Economic Council of Okeechobee Executive Director Tara Rowley. Along SR 70, widening from two lanes to four continues from the St. Lucie County line through Okeechobee, and at the intersection with U.S. 441, dual left-hand turn lanes are being added in every direction to ease traffic flow. Also in the works: An extension of SR 710 to form a direct connection with U.S. 441 north that will streamline the commute between Martin and Okeechobee counties. The work is expected to boost economic development and tourism.