From a plane, it is easy to see where Taylor Creek flows out past Taylor Creek Marina to the Indian River Lagoon and Fort Pierce Inlet. To its right, Harbour Pointe Park, owned by St. Lucie County, fronts on the lagoon. On the far right is South Bridge to South Hutchinson Island and the north side of the port area where bulkheads might someday be constructed to accommodate ships or large yachts. GREG GARDNER PHOTO
BY SUSAN BURGESS
Buddy Haack was having a bad day.
The 257-foot super-yacht that the owner of Taylor Lane Yacht and Ship was expecting had been snatched from under his nose by a Palm Beach County shipyard. He had just gotten a phone call telling him that the shipyard was going to match Fort Pierce’s low dock fee just to get the yacht into its one empty space.
“I got the phone call from the captain while I was literally standing on the edge of the dock waiting for him,” Haack says. “It was a bad day.”
It was a bad day for the Port of Fort Pierce, too, and for Fort Pierce and St. Lucie County in general because that yacht meant more jobs, more housing rentals for crew and workers, more money spent for food and entertainment – and with a simple turn of the wheel, it went to Palm Beach County instead.
LOOKING FOR BUSINESS
The Port of Fort Pierce has been looking for a viable industry for decades. Haack has been looking for a less crowded, less expensive place to open a second shipyard. “We’re turning down yachts in Dania; we’ve reached capacity,” he says.
He has the financial backers, Haack says, but there’s a Catch-22. The better his business does at the port, the more landowners keep increasing the price for their properties. He would like to buy the Indian River Terminal from Dean King, but can’t get a firm price. He said King won’t give him a lease because a lease could interfere with the sale of the property, “so we just go from day to day.”
King would like to make a decision on his 11 acres at the port, says Ken Roberts, vice president of King’s Indian River Terminal company, but it isn’t as easy a decision as one might think. It’s true that land prices around the port have gone up over the last five or 10 years, but there is nothing unusual about that, he says. Although he declined to name a selling price King might be seeking, he says real estate agents may be quoting a variety of prices to interested buyers.
Leasing is one option but must be structured in a way that’s acceptable to both parties, he explained. One hang-up might be that the mega-yacht business is not busy in the summer. Their work season is October through May. Another is that if someone other than Haack were to buy the land, they might have a problem if someone is holding a long-term lease. And a third is that “yacht people like everything to be nice and clean and fashionable,” he says. There is little room at the small port for both huge yachts in need of a clean environment and commercial enterprise such as cargo but there is developable land in the area that could ease the situation.
“Mr. King is looking at all the options and is anxious to make a decision as soon as possible.,” Roberts said. “I am sure that the port area is on the edge of developing into whatever it might turn out to be.”
The Lloyd Bell property to the north of the port, 67 acres of undeveloped land, has remained out of reach of buyers since 1996 when the Bells bought it from the MacArthur Foundation.
“I made a motion at a City Commission meeting to buy it for $3.3 million that year and I couldn’t get one more vote to make it happen,” former Mayor Bob Benton, a consultant and property manager for port-related projects, says. “Bell is now rejecting offers for $40-$50 million.”
Haack says he’s ready and able to take on more work now that additional electricity has been extended to his repair facility and he has been able to find the necessary shops and skilled workers needed for the repairing, refitting and maintaining of super-yachts up to 300 feet long.
In fact, two mega-yachts docked this fall at the port for refitting and repair by Taylor Lane: the $50 million, 214-foot Double Down and the $70 million, 230-foot Freedom, which was refitted in 2000 and 2006 and boasts a helicopter pad.
“It could be a destination for yachts,” he says. “The potential for economic impact could be huge. Broward County alone does $8.8 billion worth of business annually in the marine industry.”
And, he adds, “Broward and Palm Beach are maxed out on space for repairs, refitting and maintenance for the yachts of the 1-percenters who own them.” Mega-yacht building and purchase have been booming for the past five years all over the globe, Haack says. “We’ve had yachts from all over the world in Dania Beach.”
“We were turning down yachts,” he says. “So I called Dean King on a whim and he really helped us. He cleaned everything up and got things ready for us.”
Mayor Linda Hudson says the maxed out conditions in South Florida along with Taylor Lane’s presence in Fort Pierce “are the viable thing that caught everyone’s attention and has the place abuzz. It’s an idea whose time has come.”
The Port of Fort Pierce has many benefits – lower dock fees, lower labor costs, and as Hudson says, “We have the inlet right here. Go in the inlet and you’re at the port. In the Lauderdale area they have to travel a long way inland to get to a shipyard.”
This winter, as many as 50 crew members and additional workers from Fort Lauderdale have been staying in rental units. With that in mind, Benton, who has worked to bring the mega-yacht industry to Fort Pierce since 1996, says an investor is renovating several properties in the port area to accommodate the need for more living quarters.
Both the city and the county are interested in the developing industry at the port, Mayor Hudson says. The two governments recently agreed to work together to acquire land on the south side of Indian River Terminal at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf. They also have signed an agreement to cooperate on port development projects.
But all is not sweet cream and roses. The port area is also home to junk, Haack says. “It’s my opinion and I can say it. It looks like a junkyard.”
North Second Street and the entrance to the port are undergoing a $7.4 million face-lift – important because it will help entice wealthy yacht owners to the port. “They don’t want to go to a dump with their beautiful yachts,” he says.
Rusting barges, old tires, rusty containers and dilapidated tugboats don’t help the ambiance needed to attract captains of the yachts owned by millionaires and billionaires.
Recently he lost a job because just as the captain was about to dock his yacht, a rusty old barge was pushed in right next to it. “The captain looked at me and said, ‘Really?’ and left. It was the worst possible time for that barge to come in.”
While property owners are interested in selling, if they can get their price, the cost of the government-required cleanup could be as much as $1 million, Haack says. One property north of the terminal is soaked in diesel fuel and oil, leaving a dull glaze on top from seepage. “I think the governments would have to get together to work on this,” he says.
FUTURE LOOKING UP
Bill Thiess, chairman of the Harbor Advisory Committee, which meets quarterly and reports to the St. Lucie County Commission sitting as the Port Authority, says the port’s future is looking up. “I think we should bring in the mega-yachts, but there is a lot of land at the port that could be developed and what it will take is a viable business that has the financial backing and wherewithal to do it.”
The committee has updated the port’s master development plan in recent years, opening the door to additional enterprises – the mega-yacht repair and refitting, of course, but also light cargo, passenger cruise ships – things that will stay on the right side of the environmental advocates yet allow the port to develop into a viable and vibrant facility.
“The committee wanted to go in the direction of whatever works and is environmentally acceptable,” Thiess says. “Getting Second Street and the port entrance fixed up and bringing new gas, water, sewer and electricity to the port will improve the aesthetics and help attract business. The Harbor Advisory Committee is excited about seeing what will happen in 2016.”
Darryl Bey, a painting contractor, takes an optimistic view of the latest news coming from the port.
“The port sat there dormant for years but is one of the biggest assets we have. It’ll be a win-win if the mega-yacht industry at the port works out. There’d be a need for training but that profession makes good money. It could have a significant impact on our economics. We have the greatest, best inlet on the East Coast. If the port could be developed it would be really good for Fort Pierce.”