History was made Thursday afternoon in St. Lucie County.
County commissioners voted unanimously to get back into the port business. They agreed in principle to purchase the Indian River Terminal, the only working part of the port, for $22 million and another $3 million for almost 7 acres of other land at the port.
That, together with land at Harbor Pointe the county already owns, adds up to almost 40 acres of port property.
It also puts the port back in public ownership for the first time in more than 20 years.
MORE | St. Lucie County Commission OKs buying property at Port of Fort Pierce for mega-yacht repair
County Administrator Howard Tipton, who has wanted to jump-start activity at the port ever since he arrived in St. Lucie County two and a half years ago, admitted to some queasiness on the board members’ parts when he briefed them individually ahead of the meeting.
“What can go wrong?” Tipton said he heard several times.
That’s a legitimate question. Over the years we’ve been promised so much at the port, yet have almost nothing to show for it in terms of development.
So, what’s the difference this time around?
Tipton argued there’s been a rare alignment of circumstances recently.
For the first time in decades, there’s a willing seller. Entrepreneur Lloyd Bell, now deceased, bought the port in 2000 for $5.5 million and had resisted selling it to ever-more eager purchasers for astronomical amounts during the boom years.
Dean King, owner of the terminal property, had tried to sell the land last year to a private shipyard operator from Fort Lauderdale. The deal failed, and once it did county staff pounced.
The county, Tipton argued, is in a good financial position to consummate the deal on its own, if it has to. Obviously, he’d welcome other partners, such as the city of Fort Pierce and the state of Florida, Tipton said. Yet, the county could go it alone if it had to.
Fort Pierce City Manager Nick Mimms, Mayor Linda Hudson and other city commissioners at Thursday’s meeting positively glowed at the prospect of an operating port.
“Absolutely,” we want to be a partner, Mimms beamed. “We want to be 50-50 partners,” added Hudson.
Fort Pierce’s financial contribution is yet to be formally determined.
St. Lucie County and the city of Fort Pierce seem happily in lock step over plans for the port.
A successful seaport could pay huge dividends for the city. A working mega-yacht repair/refit operation could generate about 900 high-paying skilled jobs within three to five years, county officials say.
There could be a second wave of vendor and supplier jobs after that.
When mega-yacht refit specialist Buddy Haack of Fort Lauderdale brought three vessels to Fort Pierce two years ago, he had few difficulties finding skilled craftsmen. Yet he noted the lack of specialist businesses nearby, notably a marine chandler to supply specialized boat hardware. The nearest chandlers are in Fort Lauderdale.
A working port also could bring a downtown hotel and more restaurants and entertainment businesses nearby.
The state, with Gov. Rick Scott’s hand on the helm, has been generous in helping develop Florida’s seaports. Scott is a firm believer in the economic-growth potential of the state’s 15 deep-water ports.
At No. 15, Fort Pierce is the only privately owned one on the list. Taking it back into public ownership would make Fort Pierce eligible for infrastructure grants.
”We’re at the bottom now; there’s only one way we can go — up,” County Commissioner Tod Mowery pointed out.
‘Hot’ industry getting hotter
Repairing and refitting mega-yachts in Florida traditionally has been concentrated in Fort Lauderdale. Yet many facilities there are congested or cannot expand. Fort Pierce has affordable space and an inlet that makes for easy port access.
Tipton and Port Director Stan Payne both believe the mega-yacht business is getting hotter.
“Yes, the mega-yacht business is better than it was three to five years ago,” agreed Lucy Chabot Reed, publisher of Fort Lauderdale-based The Triton, a monthly international news magazine that caters to yacht captains and their crews.
“Back then we were still in the recession bubble,” she said. “The latest Superyacht Report showed an increase in the production of those vessels for the first time in a long time. And boats are starting to move around again. Yachts and crews were idle for a while; there’s been more activity lately. And vessels that haven’t been used in a while will need more servicing and so on.”
Tipton has been focused on reinvigorating the Port of Fort Pierce ever since he arrived from Brevard County.
He brought on board Stan Payne, who has an impressive track record operating ports from Virginia to Port Canaveral. Payne spent the past two years as a consultant handling the negotiations in the King deal.
Both Tipton and Payne represent a significant upgrade in management talent as far as the port is concerned. We can learn many lessons from their background.
Everyone I spoke to at the county has his or her fingers crossed for the next 90-day due diligence process. Are we paying a fair or an inflated price? Is there ground pollution at the port we’ll have to deal with? What could go wrong this time?
County residents have been promised the moon and stars at the port so many times, with almost nothing tangible to show for it.
Let’s hope this time will be different. Bringing in a steady supply of mega-yachts could bring a game-changing number of decent-paying jobs and an overall level of prosperity Fort Pierce really could do with. It could be a major economic shot in the arm.
I’m hopeful, but still a little wary. I suspect I’m not alone.
Anthony Westbury is a columnist for TCPalm. This column reflects his opinion. Contact him at 772-221-4220, email@example.com, or follow him at TCPalmWestbury on Twitter.