A massive residential and retail complex, combined with the arrival of new businesses, will transform the heart of Fort Pierce
BY ANTHONY WESTBURY
Fort Pierce possesses so many natural assets other cities would die for — expansive public access to the waterfront, the Atlantic Ocean only a short boat ride away. The city has retained its own unique, funky style, it has a rich and celebrated history and a lovingly restored downtown.
And yet, while neighbors to the north and south have expanded and prospered over the past two or three decades, Fort Pierce has too often seemed in the doldrums. Investment in downtown — aside from some city efforts — has been patchy at best.
That may be about to change. A new mixed-use development scheduled to break ground this summer could be “transformational’’ and two new large seafood restaurants, Crabby’s and the Thirsty Turtle, are certain to lure more people to visit downtown. These advances come as the retail base continues to expand, propelled by the arrival nearly two years ago of the Galleria at Pierce Harbor, which included the Rooster in the Garden restaurant and the high-end Braford Steakhouse.
The 7.2 acres between Indian River Drive and Second Street in downtown Fort Pierce that formerly housed the H.D. King electric plant could be transformed into an $85 million development featuring a hotel, townhomes, condominiums, retail and office space.
The Fort Pierce City Commission in June selected Audubon Development as master developer of a plan called King’s Landing. The centerpiece would be a 100- to 125-room hotel, surrounded by upscale townhomes and 60 condominiums, and apartments fronting onto the Indian River Lagoon. Forty thousand square feet of retail, 14,000 square feet of restaurant and office space will complete King’s Landing.
The plant was demolished in 2008 and more than $4 million in city and federal soil remediation efforts rendered the land usable again. Over the years, a number of community planning meetings have made it clear what the people would like to see on this important vacant property: a hotel, retail stores and restaurants, offices and upscale housing.
Those elements would extend downtown northwards and breathe new life into the city center. Incorporating residential development would add to the city’s vibrancy, especially outside work hours.
While the city is contributing the land worth $2.8 million, master developer Audubon is responsible for installing all the infrastructure — street layout, utilities and building pads for specific users who will come later — about $2.5 million worth of work. Individual parcels will then be sold to a hotel operator and builders for the condos and townhouses.
“We expect to break ground in June or July 2020, with occupancy by November 2021,” said Dale Matteson, Audubon’s president and CEO. “We’re currently in the permitting, analysis and utilities stage — all pretty unglamorous stuff.
“There’s been a lot of interest in the retail and commercial opportunities. We want to reflect the community and to make King’s Landing a destination.”
The site is unique. It’s technically called “urban infill,’’ meaning the property has been filled in from the adjoining Indian River Lagoon. At the same time, it’s in a town enjoying a renaissance in downtown and on the water. That’s a very rare combination these days in Florida, Matteson said.
“The city marina is chockfull and this would be the place for (boaters) to shop and eat. We think retail will attract both existing and new businesses.’’
The buildings will have an Old Florida/Moorish design theme, reflecting Fort Pierce’s Mediterranean architectural style, but with a Bahamas flavor, Matteson said. “We design differently for every market we work in.”
Audubon recently hired a national research firm to determine exactly the type of hotel that might work best in Fort Pierce.
“All the major hotel companies are looking for sites like this — on the water with expensive condos.”
“It won’t be like something out on the interstate,” Matteson promised. “We’ve talked with Marriott, but haven’t decided on any particular ‘flag’ yet. There are so many varieties of hotel these days. I believe it’ll cater to business travelers, some convention travel (the design is expected to incorporate a banquet hall/meeting space that is sorely lacking in the city).
“There’s been a lack of the hotel industry here so it’s a challenge and an opportunity. The correct mix of restaurants/retail/residential nearby will all help the hotel succeed. Add in downtown businesses and vacation travelers, spring training visitors and the mega-yacht business at the port.
“The yacht business alone could fill beds — not just owners, but support people — there are 20-40 sub-contractors for each yacht that docks here, plus crew accommodations needed. The timing seems right now.”
Matteson has been developing similar projects throughout the United States for more than 25 years.
“I’ve never seen a project with such advance interest,’’ he said. “We’ve had to set up a reservation system for residential and retail spaces and we haven’t turned any dirt yet. That’s very unusual. Demand is very robust.
“We’ve had reservations and deposits placed on the penthouses, which start at $1.2 million. We’re building to bring new people into the city. We’re seeing a totally new level of energy. And these are at prices you’ve never seen in Fort Pierce. All the penthouses are gone. Our Charleston townhomes are close to $600,000, condos in the $400s to high $700s. Apartments will range from $1400 to $1900 a month rent.
“Every project I build, I have a place to live in. I’m not just an out-of-town developer making a buck out of Fort Pierce. (Living here) gives you a different perspective, a different level if you build it for yourself.”
Matteson said he is “excited beyond words to be selected as the master developer. (Fort Pierce) is a diamond in the rough. I believe we’ll be viewed as being really smart to have done this. Fort Pierce is certainly ready for a growth spurt. It’s (a place) ready to take off. We’re ecstatic about this opportunity. I just wish we were moving dirt today!”
The final cost to build King’s Landing is expected to be around $85 million, including $15-20 million for the hotel. Fort Pierce has never had such an economic shot in the arm and many smaller business owners are hoping to ride the wave of prosperity King’s Landing will bring.
Gary Hardie is one of the principals of a company that operates 10 casual waterfront restaurants throughout Central Florida. The chain began in the Tampa area, but has expanded to Kissimmee and Daytona Beach.
Hardie was born and raised in Fort Pierce. He attended school at St. Anastasia and John Carroll. He left the area when he went to college and has since settled in the Tampa area.
Yet over the years, he’s stayed in touch with Fort Pierce through his family, who still live in the city. Hardie said he’s excited about a sense of new direction in recent years.
He is convinced the proposed King’s Landing development will be a major game-changer for the city. “There are no hotels downtown. I think it will bring a lot of new businesses to the city. While I think there’s a great atmosphere in Fort Pierce, a lot of (outside) people have never heard of the place, or know very little about it. King’s Landing could change all that.
“It will definitely bring new people here, especially as they are talking with Marriott, and that will help Crabby’s.”
Crabby’s is building a new restaurant on the site of the Original Tiki Bar at the City Marina. The site is surrounded on three sides by water, so it has presented some challenges, Hardie said. It’s necessitated a slower, more deliberative approach in building it, especially the foundations.
“Even getting materials to the site proved challenging, but working with contractor Paul Jacquin & Sons has been great. They are doing a great job.
“The new building is very solid — it’s built like a tank. It’s somewhere I’d go if a hurricane comes! Building codes have been very tough, being on the water. The exposed site does mean the design is a little less open than we wanted originally.
“We are building the place and then leasing the land from the city. City officials have been very helpful. In fact, we had the entire construction project and permitting done in advance. That will minimize the city’s revenue loss of lease income. It will also allow the building to be completed faster and that means we can put people back to work quicker. A lot of employees lost their jobs when the Tiki closed and we want to allow them the opportunity to work for us.
“We are expecting to open in May or June, or even a little sooner. Other than the deeper foundations we were required to use, everything else has gone perfectly; we’ve had no delays. It’s going unbelievable.”
Hardie expects the new restaurant will employ around 100 people and will seat about 250 customers — double the capacity of the previous building.
“We will concentrate on seafood and have a brick pizza oven. Our emphasis will be on high-quality, freshly made and locally sourced ‘beachy’ cuisine.
“Our signature dish will be Bairdi crab from Alaska. It’s sweeter than regular crab. We can grill, steam it. We are constantly tweaking the menu for individual locations.”
Hardie hasn’t lived permanently in Fort Pierce since 1988. He’s seen a lot of changes — some good, some not so much — since he left the city.
“Growing up here I didn’t realize just what a small place it was,” he said. “I’ve seen lots of stores closing over the years — Kmart, places downtown. These days, you can’t even buy a pair of shoes in Fort Pierce. I compare that with my experience in Tampa. It’s a much bigger place, but the pace of change has been astronomical. Traffic is unreal.
“I believe growth follows civic leadership. In the past, some people (inside and outside city hall) in Fort Pierce didn’t want any change. They feared it. But the city needs to create opportunities for new people coming into the city or for those wanting to stay.
“We’ve got to grow and find new opportunities for our kids. Too many have been forced to move away to find decent jobs. We need to keep expanding the college and bring in new jobs.
“The new hotel will help a lot of people — imagine the positive effect it will have on the Sunrise Theatre — allowing people to see a show and spend the night here.
“Some people still fight change, but we have much better leaders today than we’ve had in a long time — especially Mayor Hudson.
“I don’t want to go crazy with new growth and change, but I am encouraged by the city’s attitude to our project. Getting things approved has been much easier than in some other municipalities we’ve worked in. The city seems to be on the right track. New development breeds more development and improvement.
“I’d love to see more retail in Fort Pierce. They need to clean up US 1 and get rid of some of those old, empty stores. The mega-yacht facility will help. I’d like to see that help reverse the trend of out-migration we’ve seen in Fort Pierce. Renovation of residential areas near downtown would help, too.
“And I’d like to see more charter boats come back to Fort Pierce. There are only a few left, compared to when I was growing up. Maybe that’s one result of having nowhere to stay overnight. Maybe visitors will come here, stay, buy some stuff, even maybe buy some real estate. That’s the direction we’re heading. I intend to buy something here, maybe at King’s Landing.
“I think things in Fort Pierce are definitely getting better and I think they’re going to get even better in the future. If I didn’t think that we wouldn’t be coming to open the restaurant here.”
Some historic downtowns have a policy of banning national brand-name stores and restaurants. Not Fort Pierce.
While there was some public resistance to a 7-11 convenience store opening on Second and Orange a couple years ago, many people’s imagined problems with such a store never really materialized. While that convenience store closed due to a corporate decision, the owners of the building that housed it are busy adding another national name to their retail roster: Dunkin’ Donuts.
Patty Reconco is property manager for RFMD Investments of Fort Pierce, which owns the building that houses Subway, the upcoming Thirsty Turtle restaurant, Taylor Optical, and the proposed Dunkin’ Donuts.
Reconco reported that Thirsty Turtle is scheduled to open in February, and Dunkin’ Donuts is working with architects on a store design that fits in with its historic surroundings. She believes that store could open within two to four weeks after negotiations with the city can be satisfactorily concluded.
“We own the building and all these businesses are our tenants,” Reconco said. “I think we have a good mixture of family-owned and name-brand businesses. They bring a balance to downtown, in my opinion. The name-brands bring the foot traffic we need and the others retain a sense of quaintness.
“I have not heard any complaints about Dunkin’ coming. In fact, people seem very enthusiastic and want to know when they’re opening their doors. I think 7-11 showed people that a name-brand store isn’t necessarily a bad thing downtown.
“With all the growth, family-owned businesses don’t seem scared at being next to name-brand stores. It helps bring in customers. There will always be the craft places that help keep the downtown flavor, but the name-brands can help keep Fort Pierce being great.
“From 2014 until now we’ve seen gradual improvements downtown, and that’s accelerated in the last three years. What really made a difference to downtown businesses was the restoration of the city marina after repairing the damage from the 2004 storms. The marina has really put us out there to new possibilities and people coming into the city. Visitors fall in love with downtown; it really is an area that has a lot to offer.”
BUSINESS OWNERS UNITE
Beryl Muise has owned Notions & Potions on Second Street for four years. She is an active and enthusiastic member of the two-year-old Downtown Business Alliance that seeks to help merchants thrive by working together more collaboratively.
“We started with five members and now have 40 or 50,” Muise said. “We all work together to get people to come downtown. We’re like a family working together. We decorate our stores, set up selfie stations, work with the city to organize pressure washing to clean sidewalks.
“We also hold events. One recent one, Shop Small Saturday, brought in 331 people through my store alone. We got gift certificates from other merchants, created a competition for a $1500 shopping spree downtown. Mayor Hudson told me she’d never seen that many people downtown since she was young!”
Muise said she realized a couple of years ago that merchants needed to band together, so she went door to door and assembled a downtown business directory.
“We printed it up and it was included in the welcome package they hand out to boaters at the City Marina. Then we placed it at the courthouse for jurors.
“I do think this is a different time for Fort Pierce,” Muise said. “People love the vibe, the people. It’s a great community. The business owners are like a family, and that makes a huge difference.”
One business in downtown Fort Pierce, Taco Dive, was so successful when it opened four years ago that it eventually spawned the opening of three other locations in Vero, Tradition in Port St. Lucie and South Hutchinson Island. The company is owned by longtime Treasure Coast residents Bonnie Turk, Allison O’Connor, Kelly Greiner and Joel Rucker.
“Originally Allison and I were educators who wanted a change,” Turk recalled. “In 2007, we bought a Hurricane Wings franchise in Jacksonville because there weren’t any available on the Treasure Coast. Eventually we ran the one at South Beach Jetty in Fort Pierce for three or four years.
“Allison and I were walking by the old Bagel Girls store [on Second Street] one night after being at Sailfish (Brewing Company). We said what a really cool feeling the place had. We also really liked the location. We decided to take the plunge and start a completely new venture.
“We were both born and raised in Fort Pierce, so we’ve known for some time that it’s going to blow up. We’ve watched downtown grow so much in the past five years. Business owners now meet once a month. It’s a very tight-knit group that looks out for each other. We discuss events, we cohost things. It’s a mix of restaurants and retail stores. Even the long-established mom and pops, like the Cake Lady and Varsity Sports, are thriving. It’s so different from 10-15 years ago.
“We were on the early cusp of tacos. We saw tacos as affordable and fun and appealing to all age groups. We never imagined we’d have four stores and a pizza oven inside five years.”
“We wanted a cool spot with great food and cold beer,” O’Connor added. “There are a lot of (customers) looking for that, too. Now we’re a place people want to visit. It’s an awesome experience seeing your vision come to fruition.”
Taco Dive’s latest location is on South Beach in the former Bluewater Grill building, right next to the same Hurricane Wings Bonnie and Allison once ran.
“The new store is doing very well,” Turk said. “It opened in October and it’ll be the most seasonal of our four stores.
“I see (the Jetty Park area) as an extension of downtown. Downtown was becoming too congested and this area is another option for people. It’s a beautiful, vibrant spot and we jumped at the chance to be there. (The jetty has) become a very popular area these days. The island’s become a destination, people can make a day of it out here.
“Persistence has paid off; we like to keep it funky. It keeps us fresh, too.”
Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson, a native of the city, also believes the current times are a game-changer for downtown.
“The Audubon King’s Landing development was described as being “transformative” by Treasure Coast regional planners who helped assess the project for the city. And I think it really will be for downtown,” Hudson said.
“We’ve been working toward it for at least 10 years. That build-up and a better economy and the fact that South Florida is no longer as attractive a place to live or work due to congestion and rising property prices means many people are looking for a new place to relocate. Fort Pierce is ideal for that.
“Ten years ago, downtown was full of empty storefronts. That’s not true today. The (Community Redevelopment Area) paved the way, and the restoration of the Sunrise Theatre. Both were building blocks for the renaissance that’s happening now.
“Now we’ve had the county’s push for the port and mega-yachts. All those factors have brought new people to Fort Pierce and they are buying up cheap property for new businesses.
“For example, The Galleria has added a touch of class to downtown that simply wasn’t there before. Downtown seems to be attracting a lot of people doing new, interesting things.
“The city has a young, enthusiastic staff these days who are eager to follow up on new ideas. City Manager Nick Mimms is our quarterback. He’s very pumped-up. The staff is pumped-up. Many were born in Fort Pierce and they all love the city and want to see it succeed. I’m very tired of the city being called the armpit of Florida! So, it’s great to see new people coming here and not letting the old images of the city color their perception.
“So, what’s different this time? The leaders in city and county work well together. Some previous Fort Pierce leaders neglected the city and we were not represented on quite a few boards because of our apathy. The commission did as little as possible; they were not proactive.”
Downtown’s future does indeed look bright as the city’s natural assets and entrepreneurial spirits are brought together. The diamond may not stay in the rough for much longer.