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TREASURE COAST: Regional Mindset

Say this for the real estate market collapse. It crystallizes the need to diversify the Treasure Coast’s economy. “The issue for Indian River County is we need to create a more stable job base,” says William J. Penney, executive vice president and chief lending officer for Vero Beach-based Marine Bank & Trust. The same holds true throughout the Treasure Coast.

See population, income and job statistics from this region.

Fortunately, the knowledge-based sector is growing in Port St. Lucie. The latest components are a Florida unit of Oregon Health and Science University’s Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and biotech entrepreneur Alfred E. Mann’s 22-acre project that will have space for medical, corporate and research offices and retail. Both are close to and follow the landmark relocation of California-based Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies to land donated by developer Core Communities at its Tradition project.


Year Starts
2003 4,457
2004 5,026
2005 4,777
2006 4,832
2007 2,017
Source: MetroStudy

“It made a great deal of sense once Scripps went into Palm Beach,” says Core President Pete Hegener of the LaJolla-based Scripps’ Jupiter campus, “to be part of a cluster that would run all the way from Miami to Jacksonville.”
Hegener’s regional mindset delights Michael Busha, executive director of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, who says the top need for the area is to join forces with Southeast Florida to become the sixth-largest metro nationally with the clout to attract funding for infrastructure and other needs. Says Busha, “We’re growing together as one metro area whether we like it or not.”

A new economy brings new requirements. St. Lucie County Economic Development Council President Larry Pelton says the region’s education players will rise to meet the new economy’s needs: “We have to upgrade our education system to be consistent.”

John Loesser
Arts element (Stuart)
John Loesser
» John Loesser has been executive director of the 500-seat Lyric Theatre for the last nine years. A circa 1926 theater owned by a non-profit, it holds 300 events a year, brings in $3 million in ticket sales and is an anchor of downtown life. Visiting acts have included Art Garfunkel, Jackie Mason, Manhattan Transfer and the 5 Browns along with Broadway classics, dance companies and chamber musicians. "Why can't you make a 500-seat theater into a baby performing arts center? That really changed the dynamic."
[Photo: Brian Smith]


Booming St. Lucie has gotten all the ink nationally for rapid growth, but of the four Treasure Coast counties, only smaller Indian River County posted gains above the state’s average annual growth of 2.07% over the past five years — albeit from a smaller base. Down the road, Indian River’s population, according to University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, could reach 150,000 in two years and grow to 166,800 by 2015. Martin County over the same span is on track to reach 154,100 and 167,000 residents while St. Lucie is expected to hit 298,800 in 2010 and 346,200 in 2015. Okeechobee is secure as the smallest county in the region with a projected population of 40,300 in two years and 42,300 by 2015.

Vero Beach / Indian River County

It’s been an unsettling time in this high-income county. After 60 years, the Dodgers are leaving Dodgertown for Arizona. Major employer Piper Aircraft kept the area hanging for more than a year on whether it would stay. Housing, especially in the more affordable west Vero area, tumbled.


» The co-owners of the nursery and landscape business Becker Cos. in Vero Beach forecast a “pretty substantial” decline in business. The company supplies Treasure Coast real estate developers. Tom Hurley, CEO and chairman, says the 225-employee operation, which has holdings from Martin to Indian River, is branching out to more stable markets, such as Orlando and the Bahamas, which benefit from the weak U.S. dollar by attracting European investment.

» At 70, Seacoast National Bank Senior Executive Vice President Bill Curtis retired in January. He remains chairman of Seacoast Indian River County, but that’s only part of his activity. Last year, he was instrumental in founding a community leaders summit, representing the arts, education, charities, government and business, that worked to retain Piper Aircraft in Vero Beach and branched out to improve communication between sometimes opposing interests in the county. He’s also active in the local chamber, Catholic Charities and with his wife, Nancy, in other philanthropic endeavors.

» Chuck Mechling, a partner with Steve Melchiori and Tom Jones in Vero Beach’s Pointe West, a 600-acre traditional neighborhood design project, is breaking ground this year on a medical building and a town center to support the 700 homes and golf and equestrian amenities already in place. Mechling projects 450 more homes will be built at the project, which is recognized for hosting community events and supporting non-profits.

Stuart / Martin County

Louis Surette
eye in the sky (Stuart)
Louis Surette
» Martin’s robust aviation-related industry is a bright spot for the local economy. Louis Surette, co-president of TurboCombustor Technology, a 355-employee,
Stuart-based fabricator of complex sheet metal for jet engines, saw revenue increase 36% last year and expects another 20% to 25% growth this year. He expects to hire 15 to 20 workers. "It's going pretty strong," Surette says of his industry.
[Photo: Michael McElroy]

With builders, the building trades, real estate and auto sales all taking hits, the search for economic growth falls back on the industries that have built a niche
in this famously anti-growth county and on those with proven staying power.


» Land planners Michael Houston and Don Cuozzo, principals in Houston Cuozzo Group in Stuart, expect revenue will be down 30% this year compared to 2007 but on par with 2004 revenue. The downturn took the froth from the market, but developers of large projects are using the firm to secure the government approvals they’ll need in place when the market turns, says Houston, whose firm is active throughout the Treasure Coast. A return to realistic land valuations is helping the local Habitat for Humanity, on whose board Houston serves.

Port St. Lucie / St. Lucie County

Caliza Pool
Housing challenge (Port St. Lucie)
Pete Hegener
» Pete Hegener, president of Core Communities, developer of the 8,300-acre Tradition development in Port St. Lucie, is thinking long term. Sales at Tradition, which already has 2,000 homes occupied, have fallen from what Hegener calls the "artificial high" of 2005 but are "steady." Local real estate watchers credit him for pushing ahead with development of Core’s 4.5-mile-long commercial corridor along I-95, including two more interstate interchanges and a mall. "We should be ready in the next upturn in the economy."

Talk to St. Lucie’s Treasure Coast neighbors, and it becomes clear how much the region’s hopes depend on whether a life sciences industry breaks out in the largest county in the region. Neighbors hope to land spinoffs, supporting players and residents from St. Lucie’s investment.


» Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies President Richard Houghten expects to see his new headquarters open in December in a 120-acre research park in the Tradition development in Port St. Lucie. The state and locals anted up $90 million in incentives to land Torrey Pines. Houghten promptly recruited Oregon Health Science University’s Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute as a Tradition neighbor. VGTI Florida is receiving $117.8 million in state and local incentives in return for creating 200 jobs over 10 years.

» Edwin Massey marks his 20th year as president of Indian River Community College — soon to be Indian River College. Massey is credited for his leadership in economic development. The college has launched its first bachelor’s programs in education, nursing, management, healthcare management and public safety administration. The college also has a center specializing in training workers in homeland security and defense at a new $38-million, 50-acre public safety training complex. The college’s foundation raised $11.2 million in 2005, becoming the Council for Aid to Education’s No. 1 community college foundation.

Okeechobee County

A proposed self-sustaining, 14,000-home town, The Grove, is being developed on 5,700 acres of citrus groves impacted by tristeza disease in northeastern Okeechobee County. Groundbreaking is planned in 2009. The developers are the landowner, Vero Beach-based Evans Properties, and Barron Collier Cos.