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Nancy Smith

Digital Domain Victim Port St. Lucie Plenty Used to Taking a Sucker Punch

September 9, 2012 - 6:00pm

Digital Domain Media Group's collapse last week made victims of all Florida taxpayers. To the tune of $20 million. But few of those taxpayers will feel the pinch quite as directly as the long-suffering citizens of Port St. Lucie.

Port St. Lucie, on Florida's Treasure Coast, was home to Digital. In the middle of a bad economy, the city pulled out all the stops to build a headquarters for this state-of-the-art animation and special-effects company.

With Digital's promise to hire 300 people, the City Council thought it had a winner. Digital Domain, pure glitz and glamor, created excitement Hollywood-style. It had contributed to such James Cameron Oscar-winners as "Titanic" and "Avatar."

So, in 2009, with Gov. Charlie Crist's office assuring the city that the company was a good risk, with Jupiter Island's John Textor serving as CEO, Port St. Lucie handed Digital $10 million in cash, tied up a $10.5 million piece of land in its master-planned Tradition community and financed the deal with a $39.9 million bond.

Digital moved in on Jan. 3, then teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, it moved out all but 20 mop-up employees on Sept. 6.

As it happens, this blow is nothing new for Port St. Lucie. It's just the another setback to overcome. And, believe me, this is a city that knows how to overcome.

Since the day it was born five decades ago, the city has been clawing for dignity and respect.

Let me try to explain.

Port St. Lucie is maybe the worst-designed city in America.

It was one of nine communities created by General Development Corporation (GDC), for many years the largest land development company in Florida.

What GDC did was to buy a 70-square-mile cattle ranch between Stuart and Fort Pierce, carve it up into thousands of mostly quarter-acre lots, build a network of shoddy temporary roads, then market the lots with GDC-built homes as "your dream home in the Florida sun." I remember when I was in college seeing a GDC, buy-now-pay-later booth inside Grand Central Station in New York.

GDC put in a golf course and a marina -- things to look pretty in the sales brochure -- but no downtown plans, few playgrounds, even fewer parks. There were only two narrow east-west roads to cross the St. Lucie River and Florida's Turnpike.

By the time our family arrived on the Treasure Coast in 1977, Port St. Lucie still had the feel of a "company town." GDC actually stocked the City Council with its own employees.

In the late 1980s GDC's management team was accused of fraudulent home sales. It led to criminal indictments of the company leadership, and GDC went bankrupt in 1991.

That's when it started. That's when a spirit of pure, civic bloody-mindedness overtook this growing, sprawling city. There was a realization that, yes, we are a bedroom community with vast physical challenges, but we can be more. We can annex more land, create space for the businesses we need, lure employers to change the bedroom culture. Suddenly ordinary folks in the community were rising to the occasion.

Port St. Lucie leaders circled their wagons long ago and kept them there. Stuart to the south, overwhelmed with no-growth issues, has always looked at Port St. Lucie as a city unwilling to control its growth and therefore, somehow, a lesser creature. Fort Pierce to the north fears behemoth Port St. Lucie will suck more land, more business precincts -- or try to.

Over the years it has been one thing after another -- one black eye or one punch below the belt -- for Port St. Lucie.

Yet, the people have learned to keep going, keep getting better, keep growing stronger, keep fighting back.

  • In the early 1990s the city bit the bullet, voted to phase out septic tanks, and required every property in Port St. Lucie to pay for citywide water and sewer -- an initial outlay of about $5,000 per house. It was a painful, often bitter years-long process that ripped the city apart. But in the end, every homeowner in the city has access to centralized utilities. Port St. Lucie's next-door neighbors can't make that boast.
  • After a long struggle to get a Florida Atlantic University campus in Port St. Lucie, FAU claims the state's $24 million in funding cuts made it too tough to keep the Port St. Lucie campus open. That might have been a problem somewhere else, but Edwin Massey, president of Indian River State College, claims IRSC will jump in and fill the void.
  • When billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga decided to throw in the towel at his upscale Floridian Yacht & Country Club, he sold it to Texas entrepreneur and now Houston Astros owner James R. Crane for $25.6 million. Crane has invested millions of dollars in improvements to make it a spectacular Fortune 40 company retreat.
  • Club Med, once rumored to be closing down its Sandpiper Bay, Port St. Lucie facility, engaged in a multimillion-dollar renovation of the vacation retreat.
  • Two years ago Port St. Lucie had one of the highest foreclosure rates in Florida, but now -- in the middle of 2012 -- there are bidding wars going on to buy those properties.
  • In July 2012 the unemployment rate in Port St. Lucie stood at 10.7 percent, 1.9 percent higher than the rest of the state -- still not good. But two years ago U.S. News & World Report ranked Port St. Lucie fourth on its Double Whammy list of U.S. cities that have both elevated unemployment and high concentrations of negative equity.
  • Unlike Digital Domain, Port St. Lucie successfully wooed (for $32 million) Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies and $60 million for a local branch of Oregons Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute.

"This is why Aileen and I love this city so much, why it's such a joy to live here," Ken Pruitt told me.

Pruitt, former president of the Florida Senate, and a long-time Port St. Lucie resident, is now the property appraiser for St. Lucie County. "Port St. Lucie people are so resilient," he said. "Every time something comes along to knock them down, they get up off the floor, dust themselves off and look for a way to turn tragedy into triumph. We're just so darn proud to be part of a spirit like that."

There's just something about Port St. Lucie, it's a fact. I believe they will find a tenant for the Digital Domain property, and soon. I believe in them. Time and again, they find a way to paper over the cracks.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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