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North of bridge, dismantle big blue or turn it into riverfront centerpiece?

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of November 5, 2020)

Of all the decisions the City of Vero Beach must make before its 38 acres of prime riverfront utility sites can be redeveloped, determining the fate of the Big Blue power plant could prove the most divisive.

Throughout the 10-year effort to sell Vero Electric, clearing the shoreline north of the 17th Street bridge of all the aging, unsightly industrial equipment – referred to by some city officials as the “dinosaur” on the river – and starting with a clean slate was one overarching goal.

The dream of witnessing Big Blue dismantled and removed from Vero’s skyline was viewed as the ultimate, cathartic act of closure on the city’s past as a high-cost power producer.

A few years ago there was even talk of allowing a movie production company to blow Big Blue up in a blaze of theatrical, pyrotechnic glory. There seemed to be scant sentimental attachment to the towering, mid-century aqua blue structure when Vero’s electric customers were suffering under oppressive rates.

That changed somewhat as Vero turned 100 years old and basked in its heritage, swelling with pride at how the city, in certain ways, stands relatively untouched by time.

What’s obsolete to one is charming to another.

A visionary architect from Miami, where art deco buildings and candy-colored remnants of the post-war era share the neighborhoods with high-rise condos, gleaming office buildings and ultra-modern hotels, saw Vero’s history – and the kitschy potential of Big Blue – with fresh eyes.

Urban planner Andres Duany found some kindred spirits in a generation of young people who grew up seeing Big Blue’s smoke stacks on the skyline as more of an icon than an eyesore. The 20-somethings and 30-somethings value the “industrial cool” factor in Big Blue and liked the idea of partying on the rooftop.

Redeveloping unique structures like Big Blue into destination hotels is in vogue, Duany told the City Council. He pointed to a project in Savannah, Georgia, featuring a plant similar to Vero’s that is now a buzzing waterfront resort.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, the murky economic outlook and doubts about whether or not Vero could make a success out of the ambitious development plans lauded early in 2020. Now everything is back on the table, with a total of nine different variations of the master concept plan floating around and a referendum to decide what to do a year away.

Big Blue is nearly 60 years old, and like any structure that old or that is exposed to the salt air and Florida climate, is in need of constant costly maintenance and repair. It sits just yards from the river’s edge, in a flood-prone neighborhood, and must be insured for storm damage.

Pragmatists like former mayor Harry Howle, despite growing up in Vero, don’t have any emotional attachments to Big Blue – except that it reminds him of the decade-long fight to finally get Vero out of the electric business.

Howle has stated he thinks the plant should be torn down if no deep-pocketed developer emerges soon and commits – in a binding contract – to fully fund refurbishment and upkeep of the building. For the good of Vero’s taxpayers, Howle thinks the city should give itself a hard deadline to fish or cut bait on Big Blue.

Former mayor Laura Moss, who is moving on to the Board of County Commissioners after two terms on city council, feels that the city – not a developer from outside the community – should decide independently whether or not it wants to keep the power plant.

Since there are no plans for a major city-owned building on the site, the economic reality is that a developer – or rather, the lack of an interested developer – will be the deciding factor. It’s unlikely that some angel investor or philanthropist will launch a “Save Big Blue” effort just to preserve the building for posterity without an intensive commercial use to make it profitable.

In January, city staff gave public tours of the building, and members of the Three Corners Steering Committee were permitted to shimmy up to the roof to check out the view.

Having a 60-foot-high rooftop with unobstructed views of the Indian River Lagoon and beyond is indisputably something that could not be replicated should Big Blue be torn down. Planning Director Jason Jeffries reminded city officials that the plant stands 10 feet taller than the city’s current height limit. “You can’t build a 60-foot building today” he said.

To help get clarity on the issue, the Three Corners Steering Committee may take another tour of the building, with the five newly appointed members climbing up to the rooftop.

Locals need to drive over the causeway, maybe park nearby and take a good, hard look at the plant and ask themselves how they would feel if Big Blue was suddenly gone. Would you feel a void, like Vero Beach had lost an integral part of its history? Or would you applaud the move as progress? Or celebrate it as the logical culmination of the Vero electric sale?

The whole community – not just the handful of folks who attend city meetings – should make their views known to the City Council and to the Three Corners Steering Committee. Big decisions will happen in the coming months and the city needs your input.

Big Blue will either become the centerpiece of the project, the crowning jewel on the lagoon, or it will be dismantled. Until this question is answered, it may be tough for city officials to unanimously get behind a plan to put to voters in 2021.