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City Council candidates who support the vision

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of October 13, 2022)
Photo: (Clockwise from top, left) Tracey Lockwood Zudans, Taylor Dingle, Linda Moore, John Carroll and Honey Minuse.

The city’s grand redevelopment plan for the site of Big Blue – which if it comes to pass would replace the deserted hulk of the city’s old electric plant with the vibrant riverfront entertainment district Vero has lacked for the past century – is on the ballot twice in November.

First, voters who live in the city will have a chance to give thumbs up or down to a referendum proposal that would permit the project to move forward by allowing commercial development on the city-owned acreage.

Second, they will elect a slate of three city council members who, if they voted together, would make up a majority of the five-person body charged with guiding the project to fruition – if it is approved by voters.

Councilmembers opposed to the project, which will include shops, restaurants, docks, a hotel and expansive public recreation space, could obstruct the process, even if the referendum passes.

Vero Mayor Robert Brackett, who supports the plan but will be leaving the council, recently said, “The Three Corners riverfront project is the biggest thing that is happening in Vero and the biggest thing that is going to happen for many years to come.”

That sentiment is echoed by many others, including engineer John Carroll, a plan supporter who is one of eight candidates vying for the three open council seats.

“This is the most important project since the sale of Vero Electric to FPL. It will define Vero Beach and is the first big step into the future,” Carroll wrote in an email.

With that in mind, Vero Beach 32963 queried the candidates about their positions on the Three Corners referendum and redevelopment project so that voters who care about the issue, one way or another, can make informed choices.

The good news for redevelopment supporters is that five of those running avidly support a carefully curated mixed-use development at the western end of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge, calling it “a beacon for the community” and an important source of revenue to replace money that used to flow from the city’s electric utility to the general fund.

Two candidates are ambivalent. They don’t say they are against the project and, in fact, say if voters pass the referendum they will see it as their job to implement the plan the people want. But they also raise caveats about the plan and process that sound a lot like objections, worrying that the project could go astray.

And there is one hard “no” – current councilmember Bob McCabe, who sees the plan as “total overreach.”

Supporting the city’s concept plan are Tracey Lockwood Zudans, Taylor Dingle, Linda Moore, John Carroll and Honey Minuse, the other current councilmember running for reelection. All of them plan to vote yes on the redevelopment referendum.

“I am for the Three Corners project, 100 percent,” said Zudans. “It is reason I am running for the council. Among my priorities, it would be number one, two and three.”

Zudans, wife of former Vero Mayor Val Zudans, is on the board of the Veteran’s Council of Indian River County. She previously served as a trustee on the Indian River County Hospital District board during the time the board was going through the complex process of bringing Cleveland Clinic to town.

“The standing ovation plan is a culmination of what the community wants, and it wouldn’t be fair to the community to delay it,” Zudans said, referring to the concept plan that was thunderously applauded when approved by the City Council in February.

“I think it will be a cultural uniter for our community, bringing together young and old, mainland and island, and the revenue it will generate is important. It will allow us to get the sewer plant off the lagoon without raising sewer rates or taxes. I am excited to move forward with this!”

“It would be a beacon to the community. It would be a real shame to delay it,” said Taylor Dingle, a John’s Island golf pro who co-founded the Vero Beach Young Republicans Club and who serves on the City’s Historic Preservation Commission.

“It will attract visitors who will spend money and support the local economy and be a source of revenue to replace what the city used to get from the electric system,” Dingle said, referring to the $6 million Vero’s general fund received each year from Vero Electric before it was sold to FPL in 2015 for $185 million. After the sale, the city allocated some of the proceeds to bolster the general fund for several years but that money is nearly exhausted.

“This project is very important to the future of Vero Beach,” said Linda Moore, Kilted Mermaid co-owner who served on the city’s Three Corners Steering Committee, helping guide the two-year concept and design process that led up to February’s city council vote.

“It will generate well-needed revenue from lease income, sales tax and more visitors to replace the electric surplus and pay for city services without raising taxes. I know when I travel, I go all around and I think that people who stay at the hotel will be going beachside and downtown and supporting lots of local businesses.

“It will be a place where the whole community can get together, regardless of your income bracket or age group and enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings and amenities.

“People have the impression it will be overdeveloped but the Standing Ovation plan we are going with involves 70 percent green space on the property. That is a lot of green space.

“And if I get elected to the city council, not only will it be green it will also be sustainable and lagoon friendly, exceeding all stormwater standards. We will be taking care of the lagoon instead of harming it.”

Moore said it would be devastating for the city if the project faltered.

“To me, the worst possible outcome would be to just put a big fence around [the shuttered power plant] and pay $30,000 a year to cut the grass. It would be such a shame to let the property sit there with nothing.”

John Carroll agrees: “The city council has one chance to get this right or the citizens will be paying excessive property taxes forever,” he said. “If anyone gets on the council without this plan at the forefront of their commitment, then problems [are likely to] ensue.”

Carroll, a certified general contractor and structural engineer who has served as chairman of the city’s code enforcement and planning & zoning boards, has thought the post-referendum process through in detail.

Responding to a survey conducted by The Indian River Neighborhood Association, he submitted 11 substantial bullet points outlining the steps between voter approval and ground-breaking at the site.

Honey Minuse, who served on the planning & zoning board for 10 years and was elected to the city council in 2020, voted to approve the concept plan and referendum. She believes the project would be an economic driver that would bring many benefits to the city, and notes that the planning process was long and careful, going above and beyond to solicit and incorporate public input.

“I am very much in favor of moving forward and would strongly advocate for the plan as a council member if I am re-elected,” she said.

The two candidates who seem ambivalent about the project are former city councilmember Ken Daige, who served from 2006 to 2008 and opposed the decision to sell the city’s electric utility, and Brooke Steinkamp, a beachside boutique owner who serves as chairman of the city’s recreation commission.

Neither of them responded directly when asked if they plan to vote yes on the referendum and neither expressed any personal enthusiasm for the Three Corners project.

In an email to Vero Beach 32963, Daige wrote that his plan “is to carry out the voters’ decision on the ballot referendum,” adding that, “if this project is approved by the voters, it is important.”

But he also raises concerns about the city losing control of the project to a self-serving developer, writing that, “there are many items that developers can choose that fit their into their own plan to get a return on their investment ... once this property is turned over to the developers for what will most likely be a 99-year lease, it will be controlled by the holder of the lease. The developer will decide what will be open for public use at no charge or for entrance fees.”

In fact, the city could include any restrictions or stipulations it wants in a lease agreement.

Steinkamp was the only candidate who did not respond to Vero Beach 32963’s inquiries about her position. In a response to a survey conducted by the Indian River County Neighborhood Association, she wrote that the matter is “up to the voters.”

She did not say explicitly that she opposes the referendum and redevelopment plan, but she didn’t say she supports it, either, and she included in her response a lengthy critique of the planning process, noting that “residents previously voted to place this property in the city charter to be used for a recreational, cultural and/or civic purpose [not commercial development].

“The referendum itself does not necessarily guarantee the plan as designed by DPZ and Mr. Duany; it does remove the protections placed on the property and allows city council to decide on a developer and which items from the plan will be built, i.e. not everything on the plan is guaranteed.”

Headed by creative powerhouse Andres Martin Duany, DPZ CoDesign is one of the most accomplished city planning firms in the world that has created hundreds of masterplans, including successful plans for downtown areas of Naples, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach. Duany led the effort to create a Three Corners plan that included what residents asked for in a strikingly stylish and economically feasible way.

The quality of planning does not sway McCabe, who is adamantly opposed to the plan. Neither does the prospect of economic benefit or additional recreational opportunities. He voted against approving the concept plan and putting the referendum on November’s ballot. He says he will vote no on the referendum and work to mitigate the development if the referendum passes and he is reelected to the city council.

“In 2007 residents voted to make it a charter property to protect it from development,” McCabe said. “Now we suddenly have a faction that wants to give up control for 99 years.

“I’ve talked to the people who live in the condos and manufactured homes that adjoin the [development] property and they don’t want the project, especially not a hotel.”

McCabe said he would prefer a park with a single restaurant, which would have to be approved by voters in a future referendum.

The big, blue, mid-century modern powerplant, which Duany likened to an industrial cathedral, was built in 1960 and provided power for the city and nearby areas for decades. But persistent complaints about high electric bills eventually led to the sale to Florida Power and Light in 2015.

The landmark structure sits on Indian River Boulevard on about 16 acres of waterfront land north of the Alma Lee Loy that is lumped together with a similar size tract on the south side of the bridge where the city sewer plant is located. A 4-acre parcel across Indian River Boulevard also is part of the 35-acre planning area.

The city is well along with plans to move the sewer plant off the river and build a new plant near the airport.

Planning for the acreage began in 2019. The city called in Duany, designer of Windsor on northern end of the barrier island, and conducted an elaborate outreach to gather residents’ thoughts about how the site should be developed.

Duany created a plan based on his aesthetic and resident input in 2020 that included a hotel, marina, restaurants, shops, housing, parks, recreational facilities and a sailing club, much of it housed in Old Florida vernacular architecture, but with the historic powerplant rising above the new buildings.

COVID-19 slowed progress and sowed doubts about the plan.  But when the pandemic subsided, interest resurged and the city pushed forward, commissioning a feasibility study in 2021 and creating a master conceptual plan based on Duany’s vision early this year.

The feasibility study flashed green, concluding that, “The Plan is well conceived and financially feasible.” Furthermore, it said, “The Plan is marketable and likely to attract experienced and well capitalized developers.”

That turned out to be true and a number of major developers have submitted preliminary proposals to the city.

If voters approve the project this fall, the city will do further financial, engineering and site-planning work to tighten up its parameters and then put out a more formal Request for Proposals, or RFP, getting down to brass tacks with the developers.

That process is likely to attract additional development companies that are waiting on the sidelines for voter approval before jumping in with both boots, according to Vero Beach planning and development director Jason Jefferies.

Jeffries said he has made it clear to developers that proposals would have to closely adhere to the “standing ovation” masterplan, especially when it came to the waterfront retail and restaurant section.

“There is a little more flexibility in the front section, depending on the type of hotel and what happens with the power plant building, but the waterfront area has to be very close to our plan,” he said.

Dunay’s original plan encompassed both sides of the bridge, looking ahead to removal of the sewer plant, but the current plan focuses only on the north parcel where the powerplant sits.