How Martin And St. Lucie Counties Are Making An Economic Comeback
It’s not just the heavier foot traffic—evident even before season got into swing—filling downtown restaurants and shops. Nor is it the increased cranes and construction activity dotting the landscape. It’s not even the breathless news reports about the rocketing, record-breaking Dow.
Most importantly, it’s not just your imagination. It’s that sense—sometimes subtle, sometimes surging—of greater assurance when you reach for your wallet to make a purchase. The sense that the economy is actually back—definitely by popular demand.
First, the big picture. The latest jobs reports show the addition of nearly 230,000 jobs nationwide. The unemployment rate clocks in at 4.1 percent nationally—a 17-year low. That corresponds with a 17-year high in consumer confidence, according to the New York-based Conference Board gauging consumer expectations.
Statewide, a recent survey found 67 percent of small business owners with a positive outlook on Florida’s economy. Such optimism is rippling across the Treasure Coast. Unemployment is at about 3 percent and 3.5 percent in St. Lucie and Martin counties. Both counties’ anchor cities of Port St. Lucie, Fort Pierce and Stuart are experiencing or readying for the arrival of new retail, commercial and residential projects. And at least one newly incorporated town in Martin County is eager for newfound opportunities.
“We’re benefiting from a strong economic posture,” says Pete Tesch, president of the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County. “There seems to be greater confidence in many of the markets to facilitate this type of growth. It’s all inner-related: Establishments, restaurants, residential planning—it all has a circular effect on the local economy.”
Most encouragingly, Tesch says, the excitement is grounded in sharp memories of the recent past.
“What may be a little different, if you were to reel back to 2007,” Tesch says, “is there seems to be more depth and diversity in the economy this time, instead of that gold-rush mentality to put up thousands of houses.”
It was a challenge every member of the Stuart City Commission recognized.
“You look at downtown and there’s very little housing,” says Stuart Mayor Kelli Glass Leighton. “We have a consensus among the commission that there’s a need for residential development downtown.”
In 2013—as part of its downtown revitalization efforts—the City of Stuart purchased land between South Dixie Highway, Southwest Albany Avenue and Joan Jefferson Way known as the “Triangle Property” for $1.5 million. Two years later, the city initiated efforts to attract residential options previously unavailable. It was a move applauded by Michael Houston, a planner and designer who also serves on the board of Stuart Main Street, a 30-year-old organization dedicated to enhancing and protecting historic downtown.
“The rental project is a significant new thing, as it’s affordable housing coming online,” Houston says of the city’s approval of New Urban Communities’ plans for a 49-apartment complex called Azul. “The more people [who] live close to downtown, the more it’s an exciting, vibrant, livable place.”
In 2011—in anticipation of attracting future downtown residents—Stuart Main Street called on Marcela Camblor-Cutsaimanis, designer and town planner of Marcela Camblor & Associates, for creative ways to increase activity at shops and restaurants.
Camblor-Cutsaimanis suggested something that was “visible quickly and meets the expectations of those [who] would come downtown,” she says. “Culinary tourists to downtown areas expect to sit outside and enjoy open-air dining.”
Doing so would cost parking—a premium in downtown Stuart. So Camblor-Cutsaimanis went door-to-door to every downtown business and persuaded them that converting select parking spaces to decks for outdoor dining would provide a better vantage point for window-shopping. All agreed and decks with seats, tables and umbrellas soon replaced 12 parking spots outside Osceola Café, Stuart Coffee Co., (what’s now) Spritz and others.
The idea was designed, says Camblor-Cutsaimanis, with today’s forthcoming residents in mind.
“People who live in urban areas don’t have a backyard,” she says. “The time you spent outside is your backyard. That’s why finding creative ways to establish downtown leisure space is so important.”
It’s yet another draw, says Timothy Hernandez of New Urban Communities, who estimates the 800- to 1,500-square-foot apartments ranging from $1,400 to $2,600 per month.
“With apartments, you’ll find that more people live there full-time instead of as a second home where they’ll only be there a few months at a time,” Hernandez says. “That means the people [who] are going to be living there will spend their money there full-time.”
The addition of this previously missing component means support for the downtown business even during the off-season, Glass Leighton says. The apartments, she says, balance out luxury developments approved for Seminole Street, including Hollub Investments’ 20 residences that also includes 4,000 square feet of retail space and the 20 residences of Seminole Bluff.
“Azul will provide for a demographic that we typically don’t see in downtown Stuart,” Glass Leighton says. “Young working families and young working singles who will spend their nights downtown. This is an immediate need, and I think we’ll see them fill up very quickly.”
“The timing was perfect,” she adds.
The timing was far from perfect for quite a while, explains Tom Lucido. His landscape architecture firm, Lucido & Associates, attained approval for the original permits, maintained them throughout the recession and achieved permits on Seminole Bluff for developer John Doyle.
“Initially when we bought the property we were going to do a bed and breakfast,” Lucido says. “Once the recession hit, there was a long timeline—up until this year—when investors were skittish. Now is the right time for a project like this because the market has finally caught up to downtown Stuart. With the return of the stock market, the elections, people are starting to invest. Times seem better—putting things in simple terms.”
While he acknowledges that it’s difficult “to find urban developers for downtown areas,” Lucido says, “small-scale urban living poses strong market appeal, particularly to northeasterners.”
It’s easy to see why: Seminole Bluff offers a host of luxury design features, with amenities including smart-home technologies, an infinity pool, boat slips and a curated collection by acclaimed artist Geoffrey C. Smith displayed throughout the property.
As always, location—and the charm of the host city—is the primary draw, says John Gonzalez of Engel & Volkers Stuart, the exclusive listing agent for Seminole Bluff.
“We believe that the demographics show that buyers are looking for quality downtown residential options,” Gonzalez says, “homes that are within walking distances to all their favorite events—the Lyric Theatre, dining, the green market, live music on the Riverwalk. We’re fielding calls daily—many of them coming from local sources.”
With windows stretching from the floors to the 9-foot-high ceilings, residents will enjoy an undeniable attraction—unobstructed views of the St. Lucie River and Roosevelt Bridge.
“You have an incredible 1-mile view downtown on the St. Lucie River,” Gonzalez says. “You’ll have a longer view than you’ll find anywhere in South Florida—other than oceanfront.”
Already home to 4,000 units, Tradition is also adding apartments—304 units with Springs at Tradition and 600 units through Grande Palms at Tradition.
PulteGroup is building its first community bearing the Del Webb brand. Geared toward individuals 55 and older seeking ample options for exercise and activity, the community is offering 1,350 single-family homes and villas. With additional units coming online from AV Homes, D.R. Horton and Minto Communities, “We’re expecting 400 to 450 homes a year,” says Wes McCurry, a manager at Tradition Land Co. “That’s pretty good.”
Unsurprisingly, the buyers predominately hail from the northeast. They’re looking for a place to live in, not flip, McCurry says.
“I think Tradition offers an unparalleled quality of life, especially when you look at overall South Florida,” he says. “Low-crime rate, nearby amenities, shopping, entertainment, good schools. It’s definitely more organic growth—people buying homes and occupying them—not just buying for investments. It’s not an exuberant pace. I think it’s a sustainable pace.”
In the Tornio area just outside Tradition, forthcoming retail attractions include, among others, a 70,000-square-foot Floor & Décor store—the first on the Treasure Coast—and a 6,345-square-foot Miller’s Ale House at the proposed Gatlin Plaza. A 7,500-square-foot HopCat restaurant—the first in Florida from the 14-restaurant chain—will be built just off Meeting Street in Tradition.
“Every two weeks or more we have multiple businesses gaining zoning and land use and having their plans approved,” Russ Blackburn, city manager of Port St. Lucie, says of the activity along the Gatlin corridor and in Tradition. “There’s tremendous growth occurring in commercial.”
The Port St. Lucie City Council and the St. Lucie County Commission granted economic incentives totaling $6 million, including reductions in taxes and impact fees and infrastructure expenses, to retain City Electric Supply. The company, which plans to expand its more than 200 positions by 50, will build a 400,000-square-foot manufacturing and distribution center.
“Tradition Health Care just completed a doubling in size of its location from 80 to 160 beds,” Blackburn says.
The hospital’s impacts on economic development correspond with predictions from Robert L. Lord, president and CEO of Martin Health System, which includes Tradition Health Care.
“Back when we sought support on the first phase of Tradition, I said a hospital would serve as an economic engine,” Lord says. “It’s certainly doing just that for the people who work there every day. But eventually physicians open offices there. Sooner or later, you need a place to get a haircut, get your dry cleaning, eat lunch. I would expect we’ll see that happening over the next few years in Tradition and western Port St. Lucie, and it’s exciting to watch.”
Excitement also awaits the completion of the Crosstown Parkway Extension, a 4,000-foot bridge over the North Fork of the St. Lucie River, connecting the current Crosstown Parkway from Manth Lane to U.S. Highway 1—all told about 2 miles long.
“After many, many years, the city in 2017 received all the permits for construction of the final section of the Crosstown Parkway,” Blackburn says. “It’s on schedule, on-budget and about halfway across the river building the bridges that will ultimately connect to U.S. 1.”
Costing $87 million, the six-lane, limited-access roadway is slated for completion by November 2019.
St. Lucie County enabled the economic transformation of Fort Pierce, says Mayor Linda Hudson, by purchasing 12 acres of the 290-acre Port of Fort Pierce to solidify an industry in mega-yacht repair.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that it will be very transformative,” Hudson says, “because once you expose the City of Fort Pierce to the people whose boat captains manage mega yachts, you need all kinds of peripheral services—places to stay, places to eat, places for entertainment.
“The mega-yacht industry is a good fit for our port,” she adds. “It’s a big industry down south, and they’re running out of space. We’re more affordable. We have a wonderful inlet. It’s safe and it’s short, so our inlet is kind of ready-made for mega yachts.”
The potential economic impact would capitalize on improvements Fort Pierce made during the boom, Hudson says. During the mid-2000s, the city created an entertainment district by the beach using community redevelopment funds. Today, it attracts northern visitors as well as people from farther south looking for more affordable housing options.
It took time to realize the benefit of the entertainment district, which makes Hudson comfortable believing that recovery is returning on a “slow-and-measured” pace.
“Things that are waterfront, which our city is, have more capability of withstanding the turmoil caused by the ups and downs,” she says.
After making history by becoming Martin County’s fifth municipality—the newest addition in 58 years—the Village of Indiantown will elect its first village council in March. While well-established municipalities are realizing the results of long-planned revitalization efforts, renewed interest and resurgence of economic resources, Indiantown is simply getting started.
“People are excited,” says Scott Watson, owner of Indiantown Marina. “They want to see positive things happen in the community—housing that the average citizen of Indiantown can afford to purchase. They’re looking forward to greater amenities and services coming to town. I think that’s what they’re generally looking to, and having the money and control to improve their town.”
Incorporation gives village residents greater autonomy over the growth and direction of Indiantown’s industrial base, which includes FPL’s Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center, Bay State Milling and Cal-Maine Foods.
“It clearly is a new day,” says Kevin Powers, who grew up in Indiantown. “Indiantown’s sweet spot has always been its heavy industrial. And incorporation puts Indiantown in a position to recruit.”
Recruit and rebuild. Indiantown has endured several setbacks and hardships, from building booms that busted before delivering promised results, greening and canker devastating the citrus industry, even the 2016 closing of the Louis Dreyfus Citrus plant, costing 300 jobs.
“It’d be nice to get ahead,” Powers says. “But we’d just like to get even.”
Managing great expectations
Hired last summer by the Stuart City Commission to serve as city manager, David Ross, arrived at a pivotal moment in the history of downtown. Decades in the works, its steadily unfolding revitalization efforts have finally reached the phase of attracting—on a scale larger than before seen—year-round residents.
In the evolution of any urban destination, this is a big deal.
“From hearing the history of where Stuart was 20, 30 years ago, to seeing the progress today, to knowing what’s still in the pipeline with the residential components set to come, it’s very exciting,” Ross says. “And I’m personally excited for the opportunity to hopefully contribute something meaningful to the effort.”
Selected among a field of nearly 90 applicants following the retirement of Paul Nicoletti—Stuart’s city attorney and later city manager for a 12-year period—the 46-year-old Ross served as administrator of Rock Island County in Illinois and administrator of municipalities in Wisconsin and Iowa.
Ross arrived at the right time. Multiple milestones trace downtown’s odyssey from one mired in neglect and disrepair in the mid-1980s to its status today as a quaint destination for events, dining, shopping and living. Here are some:
• Citizen efforts to buy and restore the Lyric Theatre
• Public opposition to the Department of Transportation plan to construct the Roosevelt Bridge atop Flagler Park, all-but-dooming downtown as a dead-end
• Mayor Joan Jefferson, who personally invested in the restoration of the Arcade building, working with the Economic Council to bring in lauded urban planner Andres Duany for the downtown’s redevelopment
• City staff rewriting the code and attaining grants to maximize redevelopment funds
• Stuart Main Street creating events, including the award-winning Rock’n Riverwalk Music Series, to attract crowds and support downtown businesses
• Stuart Community Redevelopment Board recommending the reconfiguration of Colorado Avenue to slow traffic, showcase businesses and stimulate investment
• Private investments—to the tune of half-a-million dollars—in public artwork
• City commissioners acquiring and marketing the Triangle Property, enabling the current construction of the 49-unit Azul apartment building
Ross also noted city commissioners unanimously supporting a height increase to 140 feet for Martin Memorial, which—at 110 feet—already enjoyed a decades-old exemption from the city’s 45-foot height limit.
“The hospital is already well above the height limit,” Ross says. “It was granted that exemption back in the 1970s. It’s an exemption so unique and so specific to the hospital alone that only the hospital itself was able to make a case for an additional extension.
“That specificity,” Ross adds, “is what gave everyone confidence that no other residential or commercial development could ever effectively argue for an exemption to the height restriction.”
Ross says he recognizes the importance of achieving progress without sacrificing the small-town charm residents hold dear.
“That’s what everyone loves about Stuart—that’s what I love,” he says. “We can enhance downtown but still preserve that small-town charm that makes it Stuart.”
His favorite aspects include “the beautiful scenery that goes with being in such a nice part of the country,” and “the people I get to meet every day.”
“I’ve been very impressed by the way people pull together to get things done,” Ross says. “As we move forward in a controlled manner, I plan to ensure we at the city remain focused on staying attuned to the needs of residents and continue providing high-quality customer service.”