Fort Pierce mulls controversial land swap

Fort Pierce, Fla. - The city is poised to give developers a prime piece of waterfront with Fort Pierce Inlet access — a key to Fisherman's Wharf's redevelopment — in exchange for less valuable Indian River Drive property.

Swap or no swap, the city will be paying off the more than $5.4 million it owes on the wharf land for the next 20 years.

Some say it's a bad deal, that the city is giving up too much — for now and the future. Others say it's the only way to make good use of the wharf property so it can generate revenue for the city and local businesses.

However, all opinions could be moot because Mayor Linda Hudson said she doesn't think the swap is equitable. A no vote from her next month would split commissioners — with one abstaining because of a conflict — and kill the deal in a 2-2 tie.

The most current in an ever-changing proposal that has involved various properties calls for the city to give an almost two-acre parcel assessed at more than $3 million at the northwest base of the South Causeway Bridge to Mike Heiser and Mike Abinanti in exchange for their 2 1/4-acre vacant parcel, assessed at $2.26 million, south of the Citrus Avenue roundabout.

The city no longer is considering the landowners' former offers to swap for two different Indian River Drive properties south of the Citrus Avenue roundabout, including a controversial parcel that contains City Attorney Rob Schwerer's private law office, said Fort Pierce Redevelopment Agency Director Jon Ward.

The commissioners, sitting as the Redevelopment Agency board, are expected to take a final vote in January. They tentatively approved the land swap in September when it included the commercial office property. Commissioner Ed Becht abstained because he is an attorney for development team member Pelican Seafood, which hopes to move to the wharf property.

"The inequity of this deal is growing at rapid pace," lone dissenter Commissioner Tom Perona said at the time. "I fear that no matter the level of economic good that finally arises from this effort, this commission will be saddled with the fact that we have made a bad financial deal for the taxpayers of our city and have traded one giant, $5.5 million opportunity with inlet access for a set of dilapidated commercial buildings."

Public v. private control

To encourage development around the port, the city bought the wharf parcel in 2007 when it was a private marina in need of "substantial improvements" after the 2004 hurricanes, Ward said. The goal was to package the surrounding city-owned properties into an attractive piece of land for developers to buy.

"Commercial space with potential waterfront bar/restaurants and a fisherman's hotel were possibilities we envisioned," Ward said.

Within a year, the economy turned and development stalled.

The city wasn't meant to own the property long-term and doesn't have the money to redevelop it, so some city commissioners want to return it to private hands, Ward said. Unless the city sells the property for what it owes, it will continue paying $340,000 annually through 2018 and more than half a million annually through 2032.

Land swap critics say the city could lose control of a prime piece of real estate, giving developers the ability to scrap the project and sell the land. Ward countered the city could protect itself by including a condition in the agreement for the property to revert to the city if the proposed project fails.

Doing something is better than nothing, said Pat Murphy of Hoyt C. Murphy Realtors, a longtime commercial real estate agent in Fort Pierce who has had other business dealings with Heiser and Abinanti.

"It's not something you see every day," Murphy said of the land swap. "There are a lot more creative deals out there forced by this very challenging economy."

Dollars and sense

Land value, development potential and revenue generation are other considerations.

Critics complain swapping a property that cost the city $5.53 million for one now appraised at $1.45 million, but comparing values from the boom to now will drive people crazy, Murphy said. Values across the city have dropped an average 29 percent in the past five years, according to the Property Appraiser's Office.

Charlie Hayek, a general contractor and former Planning Board chairman before his failed mayoral bid this year, said the city would be getting "a raw deal" because the wharf "is one of the prime properties that the city owns with the greatest potential of increased value."

"I feel strongly that this swap is not in the best interests of the city," Hayek said.

Harold "Buzz" Smyth, the city's former economic development liaison, also thinks the larger waterfront property has more development potential. "I would much rather have my waterfront docks to lease out," he said.

Developers' spokesman Sam Yates disagreed, saying the Indian River Drive upland property — at downtown's southern boundary — could be used for a hotel while the waterfront sliver on the east

side of the road could be used for ecotourism activities, such as kayaking or sailing.

"They offer Fort Pierce the choice of controlling the gateway to the city," Yates said.

Property taxes are another factor. If the wharf was back on the tax rolls, it would generate an estimated $17,000 annually compared to the Indian River Drive property's $8,000 — and stands to generate more if Heiser and Abinanti develop it as proposed, Ward said.

The developers said their plans would have more than $16 million in direct and indirect financial impacts on the city and region, but Perona questioned that claim.

"There has been nothing submitted that would support these allegations," Perona said.

High hopes, no guarantees

The most important question may be will people go if it's built?

The developers plan to construct a 6,000-square-foot building on the wharf property to house a new restaurant, the existing Pelican Seafood retail fish market and the existing Inlet Fisheries commercial fishing business. The idea is for people to watch the offloading of fish they then can buy at the market or eat at the restaurant.

Billed as a Seattle-like wharf that would employ 215 people, the redevelopment would include a boardwalk, outdoor seating, public art, a 40-slip marina and a 50-spot parking lot, developers say.

Critics question whether their plan will create jobs and expand commercial fishing as touted. The only new jobs would be through new businesses opening in the new building's retail spaces, such as a proposed restaurant.

Commercial fishermen have said it would give them another Florida east coast location to unload since the closest now are in Port Salerno and Cape Canaveral, said Glenda Macon, the 23-year owner of Inlet Fisheries, which unloads its catch near the wharf property.

Fishermen would spend money locally on gas, food, boat repairs and maintenance and possibly hotels, she said.

"It basically gives these guys the ability to not have to travel as far," Macon said. "Think about the domino effect of how much money that brings into this town."

Macon doesn't know how many fish houses existed when her father started the business in 1975, but she said Day Boat Seafood, which moved into Inlet Fisheries' former home on North A1A, is the only other fish house remaining on the Treasure Coast.

"There's been a lot that's come and gone," she said.

Macon's licensed commercial fishermen, about 275 subcontractors who don't all work at the same time because of varying fishing seasons, wouldn't use the wharf exclusively, she said. And she encourages the competition.

"Fisherman's Wharf is intended to help the entire industry," Macon said. "You have to keep that healthy relationship in this fish business because if you don't, when there are dry times, it could dry up and just blow away."

PROJECT TEAM

Landowners Mike Heiser and Mike Abinanti

Pelican Seafood Co. owner Brian Paul

Inlet Fisheries owner Glenda Macon

Designer Butch Terpening of Culpepper and Terpening

Landscape planner Greg Boggs of Thomas Lucido and Associates

Contractor Steve Weaver of Realtime Property Development Services

Public relations professional Sam Yates of Yates and Associates

Attorney Frank "Speedy" Fee of Fee, DeRoss and Fee

WHARF JOBS

Fishing fleet of 100 boats: 150 existing jobs

Swordfish fleet of five boats: 20 existing jobs

Proposed restaurant: 20 new jobs

Inlet Fisheries: 16 existing jobs

Pelican Seafood: 8 existing jobs

Marina: 1 new job (fuel and dock hand)

Retail: Unknown, if any

Source: Project Team

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