December 1999, Treasure Coastline Magazine

Sleeping Giant
Downtown Fort Pierce faces a bright new future

by Bob McElroy

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Cities, like individuals can rise from adversity. It may be overcome by good fortune, most always with diligent effort and usually by seizing the opportunity at a critical moment. Now, Fort Pierce is such a city. 

Many small Florida towns languished after the population boom and bust of the mid-1970s. Town centers lost their central appeal; de-urbanization and shopping malls drew small businesses from downtown areas. Then, in the 1980s, the situation began to improve. In the simplest terms, old towns began realizing they had charm, and that charm if nurtured could be an asset.

In 1987, urban planner Andres Duany told a group of Stuart architects and citizens that a 1937 courthouse slated to be razed was just the type of building that should be kept. He suggested they look at what they had and build from there.

Architect and Fort Pierce City Planner Ramon Trias looked around Fort Pierce in 1994 and gave the same advice about the 1926 Old City Hall there, Barcelona-born and Miami University-trained, Trias has a natural understanding of the grace of the Mediterranean architecture of the 1920s and '30s. He also draws on experience from his consulting role as planner in the redevelopment of Lake Worth and Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. 

In Fort Pierce, Trias saw buildings of notable historic value, and a city with all of the necessary elements to make it a safe place to live and work, as well as an attraction for shoppers. He teamed with new mayor Edward Enns to show the residents of Fort Pierce what they had and why they should be proud of it.

They conducted a series of charrettes that defined what residents wanted. Beyond the amenities of restaurants, cafes and shops, the message was clear, they wanted their community back with tree-lined streets. They wanted the town to be safe and filled with art. The emphasis was to be on a good quality of life in a coastal environment. The city could
become an ideal place to live, grow and raise their families. 

What transpired from those meetings amazed Trias. Ten key restoration projects were designed. All but a few have been completed ahead of schedule, and the rest are near completion. "We wanted these things but we didn't know how we could afford them," Trias said. "But, somehow it got done."

Fort Pierce has a spirit that seems to draw people on board. Where city funds were not available, private investment filled in. Local banks, Harbor Federal and Riverside National, provided the loans. The Mediterranean-designed Fort Pierce Elementary School, for example, built in the 1930s, was in decline, and public funds were stretched thin. School
board officials took the initiative to fund the restoration. It is now a magnet school for the arts. When the Department of Transportation scheduled a key street renovation several years into the future, the city arranged to finish it now and collect from the state later. 

While Fort Pierce's downtown renaissance is still something of a secret, it is where West Palm Beach was five years ago when, after some government pump priming, old Clematis Street dramatically came to life. Like Port Pierce, downtown West Palm Beach had been ignored for decades. Fort Pierce's downtown is even more secluded than Clematis Street. The area is almost invisible from U.S. I which, although improving, cuts through several miles of dreariness with little hint of what is taking place just a few blocks to the east, on the other side of the railroad tracks. Yet among those who have crossed those tracks, there is an unmistakably positive attitude in Fort Pierce today, and it is not rooted in hopes or dreams of how things might be. It is the result of having met the challenges and prevailed.

It wasn't always that way. 

Fort Pierce was poked, prodded and assessed by European explorers for centuries and then utilized by Native Americans and early settlers well into the 19th century. As the name suggests, it is an old place, born and nourished in uncertain and sometimes violent times. The original fort was built in 1838 to protect settlers during the Seminole War and safe-guard the port along the Indian River. Its early history was the wild east. For years, it was the terminus of the Florida East Coast Railway. Cattle drives from the center of the state met the stock cars. It was also a meeting place for two tough bands, the railroad men and the cowboys. Although not incorporated until the turn of the century, the place had a hardy barroom vigor at a time when Stuart and Vero Beach were barely inhabited, and yet unnamed. 

The Florida Cracker Trail, the earliest trans-state trading route, ended in Fort Pierce' Commodities were traded at the P.P. Cobb trading post, built in 1875. At one time, a railroad track ran from the store out to a pier to facilitate unloading.

Traces of it have been found beneath the water. The old store survives and so does the inevitable legacy of its blue-collar roots. As affluence closed in on all sides, Fort Pierce began to look its age, and act it as well. It made for an easy place to ignore. People only went there to buy cars. 

And fruit. St. Lucie County is still the largest citrus producing county in the state. The difference now is that Chiquita, Ocean Spray, Dole, Coca-Cola and others have replaced old citrus and cattle family names.

The citys blue-collar town heritage continued to make it a less expensive bedroom community for labor markets in
Indian River and Martin counties, where wealth and other industry were centered. This continued for decades into the 1900s because, as Enns said, industry "didn't want it to change."

It was 1973 when Vince Lloyd, newly admitted to the bar, arrived in Fort Pierce with his wife and two children. The Redbank, NJ. native had completed law school in Dublin, Ireland, received a master's degree in classical languages from Colgate University and then taught there. He earned a second law degree at Rutgers University before moving to Florida. 

Twenty-six years later, with 10 children, a very successful trial practice and 14 fully occupied historic renovations under his belt, Lloyd is a very viable factor in the city's future. 

He moved to Fort Pierce in 1973 because he saw it as "a vital town and a tremendous place to five and grow." Alas, it did not grow. He says that the decline of the downtown began in 1975 when the first mall in the area, the Orange Blossom Mall, was built outside of town, drawing businesses from the downtown. A counter attempt to create a mall atmosphere downtown only succeeded in blocking and diverting traffic. Business after business left; the old retail district all but vanished. 

Lloyd said that was the beginning of a five-year process of decline that took 20 years to reverse.

Enns, then a county commissioner, remembers successful friends leaving town. Property became vacant. Absentee ownership rose. Crime increased. Police were involved in scandals. Mayor Bill Danahower had sown some seeds of reform in the early 1990s, but momentum "'was slow to build. Casual observers driving through Fort Pierce could not be blamed if they got the impression that it was a town that didn't give a damn.

Enns took office on the platform of pride and countering defeatist attitudes with positive action. He quickly showed that he gave a damn. He hired former West Palm Beach Police Chief Eugene Savage to manage the city police. Now, crime has dropped further and faster than any community in the surrounding counties.

Zoning codes were made stringent and strictly enforced. Gateways to the city on US 1 and leading in from I-95 have been made attractive. Education in the city has improved. As happened a few years ago in West Palm Beach, government initiative is leading the way and creative private enterprise is not far behind. 

Shortly after Enns took office, city planning board member, Robert Benton became a city commissioner with a redevelopment agenda. Born in Connecticut, Benton grew up in Fort Pierce. He carried out a vision to define the river walkway along the Indian River and city harbor. He has seen the city marina, squarely in the downtown, finally became a profitable entity this year. Walking along the dock, you will see transoms with home ports in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and Georgia, as well as Hobe Sound, Windemere, Tampa and Orlando. Sport fishing enthusiasts favor the direct ocean access. The Bertrams', Hatteras and other sleek crafts line up at the docks in the golden afternoon sun, just as they do in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. 

Benton, like Enns, Lloyd, Trias and architect Phil Steel III, does not intend to take Fort Pierce in the direction "they have taken south of here." Although that phrase is often used, it is never quite defined where "south of here" is. It is meant, though, to say that the size, resources and diversity of the city have too much potential to waste on another destination for barhopping. They believe the emphasis should be on living, education, arts and entertainment.

Steel came to Fort Pierce from Palm Beach, where he had an architectural firm for 15 years. He has designed five ocean-front high-rise condos and is working on three more. He is also an accomplished artist with an impressive list of juried shows behind him. Steel worked with Benton on the recently finished county library, located on the waterfront. The county owns the building, but the city wanted a design to match Fort Pierce's Mediterranean look. The library is the first installment of the downtown "piece de resistance, the Marina Square project. Because parking problems are being planned for in advance, Steel designed a garage hidden inside the complex.

Marina Square is a $30-million project awarded to Lloyd--one that he says puts him "in the big leagues." He studied Miami's Coco Walk in Coconut Grove and is convinced that Coco Walk "is a project that broke all of the rules for success but it works... sometimes you have to do that." Lloyd sees Marina Square breaking rules, and ground, in the summer of 2000. High-end residential, shops, art incubators and lofts, courtyards, cafes and entertainment comprise the three acres on the river, in the center of downtown. He will not disclose individual members of an investment consortium he is negotiating with, but mentions Société Général, the 125-year-old French mega-lender. France is the same country where Coco Wailes financing originated.

With numerous downtown organizations, the direction toward arts and environment is charted. There are 12 restaurants and nine art galleries, including the A.E. Backus Gallery, and a 2,500-seat amphitheater on the water. The Main Street Association has acquired the vintage 1923 Sunrise Theater. The 1,200-seat auditorium, complete with orchestra pit, will likely reopen late next year to prepare a kick-off for the city’s centennial celebration on Feb. 2, 2001.

The Smithsonian research station, which for years has been operating from a barge, has moved to a permanent location on the causeway. Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute has become a world renowned ocean/estuary research center, bringing in scientists from all over the world. Florida Atlantic University has recently expanded it's Fort Pierce facilities to offer four-year degrees in the sciences beginning in 2000. Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce has become a first-rate supplier of small-business people.

One of the more interesting players is former West Palm Beach Mayor Nancy Graham, now president of Watermark Communities (WCI)-Palm Beach Gardens. She visited with Trias in October to discuss accelerating the permitting process to build high-end residential dwellings on 100 acres of causeway land. WCI purchased 30,000 acres from the John D. McArthur Foundation, including parcels in Fort Pierce. McArthur himself lived in the city. WCI also owns 86 acres of former port land immediately north of downtown. Graham's interest is perhaps the most important endorsement the city could have, for it was during her term as mayor of West Palm Beach that Clematis Street transformed from a ghost town to one of Florida's most exciting entertainment venues.

"I don't think a lot of people understand what's happening "in Fort Pierce," says Graham. 'It's a sleeping giant. It won't happen overnight, but all the signs are headed in the right direction. It's a smaller area than West Palm Beach, and when you look at what they have done, it's pretty amazing. lt's necessary for the government to invest in order to encourage the private sector, and they have done that."

Graham's term as mayor of West Palm Beach ended in March, with rave reviews associated with her success in redevelopment. She knows the challenge facing Fort Pierce, as well as the opportunity. 

"We had to change the image and perception of what West Palm Beach was. They are still fighting that perception in Fort Pierce, and in St. Lucie County. But it has a great history. They have restored more of the buildings than we had when I started off with Clematis. In something like this, you have to be willing to take reasonable risks. Voters aren't sympathetic to mistakes, but they respect you if you try, and are willing to take some risk. A lot of the infrastructure is in place in Fort Pierce. You don't have to get 100 percent of what you want, but 75 to 80 percent will make it work for you.'

Bob Brackett, of Vero Beach, who has renovated several historic sites there, has purchased two historic properties downtown. An unknown German investor from Miami also has become involved, purchasing retail commercial square footage. 

The 28-foot-deep ocean inlet channel and turning basin is not likely to see cargo ships again, but Steel is working to establish the city as a Tall Ships port, using its easy ocean access to welcome classic vessels. The channel also allows easy navigation for the gambling ship that operates from the city marina.

With the full-service Florida Coast Marina next door, mega-yacht broker Peter Kehoe, president of Peter Kehoe and Associates of Fort Lauderdale, is expanding his business in Fort Pierce. Kehoe and a partner are among those courting WCI to purchase WCI's 86-acre port property. Says Kehoe, "That town is going to explode and I want to be there when it happens."

Enns is committed to saving older properties, emphasizing strict, code enforcement. He thinks it makes economic sense to utilize the infrastructure already in place. It makes Fort Pierce a compelling real estate investment.

In Vince Lloyd's office, among 18th century oil paintings of court scenes, there is on a shelf, in a small frame, this phrase, "It can be done." Considering what has transpired in Fort Pierce through his efforts and those of the city, it may be time to change that phrase to 'It is being done" -and done well.