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Inactivity on Three Corners development notable downer in state of the city speech

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of June 22, 2023)
Photo: Vero Beach Mayor John Cotugno gives “state of the city” presentation.

Of all the topics covered by Vero Beach Mayor John Cotugno during his 45-minute “state of the city” presentation last week, he expressed disappointment with the progress of only one project.

The Three Corners development.

Specifically, Cotugno voiced his frustration with the city’s ongoing struggle to attract and hire the right person to manage a project that is expected to transform 33 acres on the mainland’s waterfront – at the west end of the 17th Street bridge – into a social, dining, retail and recreational hub.

He said the national epidemic of people of applying for jobs and then abandoning the process without notice has disrupted the city’s timetable for formally issuing a request for proposals (RFP) from developers.

City Manager Monte Falls said in January he hoped to hire a Three Corners project manager, whose sole job would be to oversee the operation from start to finish, no later than March 31.

The RFP was to be issued in April, with a deadline for submissions in July.

“Everything you’ve heard on the news or anecdotally about being ghosted – signing up for interviews and not showing up, getting an offer and never responding, getting an offer and then disappearing off the face of the Earth – has happened,” Cotugno said.

Falls said Sunday he was scheduled to interview another candidate this week. Even if someone is hired in the next couple of weeks, however, the RFPs probably won’t be issued until mid-August – four months later than expected.

Cotugno called the RFP delay a “setback,” but he said a Three Corners traffic study already is underway, and an environmental study of the property is scheduled to begin early next month. The results are expected to be presented to the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission in November.

The mayor said the magnitude and importance of the Three Corners Master Concept Plan, which was enthusiastically embraced by the community and was unanimously approved by the City Council two years ago, demands a full-time manager.

The hire, he said, would allow City Planning Director Jason Jeffries and his staff to focus on other major projects.

“We’re trying,” Falls said, adding that he has interviewed nearly a dozen candidates. “The job market, if you’re hiring, is tough right now. If they’re not already living here, it’s hard to get people.”

Cotugno said the earliest the Three Corners development would open is the summer of 2028.

During Cotugno’s presentation via Zoom – the event was organized by local publicist Irina Woelfle’s “Let’s Talk Vero” website – he also spoke at length about the city’s efforts to create a master plan for the revitalization of downtown Vero Beach.

He said the City Council this week would review the results of the first phase of a traffic study recently conducted by Kimley-Horn & Associates, whose analysis found that the Twin Pairs through downtown has the capacity to absorb the proposed lane reduction and still provide “acceptable operating conditions.”

Given the results, the council was expected to approve the second phase of the study.

The mayor then mentioned a “very important” study being conducted by nationally acclaimed urban retail planner Bob Gibbs to determine the types of retail the downtown area can support.

He said Gibbs is expected to present his findings to the City Council, which paid for the study, no later than the first half of next month. Those findings will be incorporated into the downtown master plan, he added.

Cotugno also noted the city’s efforts to provide affordable housing – possibly on a former nursery site near Crestlawn Cemetery on Old Dixie Highway – and rejuvenate Pocahontas Park, which he called the “gem of downtown.”

He said the Jimmy Graves Sports Stadium and Vero Beach Community Complex “is going to happen,” adding that he’s most excited about the planned all-inclusive playground, which can be accessed and used by disabled people.

The city donated $1 million for the construction of the facility, which will be built on the 11.6-acre parcel across 16th Street from Vero Beach High School. The Jimmy Graves Foundation donated the land to the School District in 2021.

The stadium will include a regulation track and a lacrosse/soccer field for Vero Beach High School teams.

Other projects on which Cotugno provided updates:

• Relocation of the municipal wastewater treatment plant from the western banks of the lagoon to the airport: He said plans will be finalized in December, allowing the city to begin seeking bids in January or February with the awarding of a contract next June.

He said construction is expected to take 30 months, and the new facility will be in “full start-up mode” in April 2027.

• Selling stormwater to John’s Island for irrigation: He said the pipeline that will be used to deliver water across the lagoon from the Main Canal is being designed, and the city is in the process of negotiating easements from the county at Gifford Dock Park, immediately south of Grand Harbor.

Once the easements are secured, the city will initiate the bid process later this year. Construction of the pipeline is expected to take 9 to 12 months, with the pumping of water to John’s Island to begin in September 2024.

• Renovation of the city marina: He said plans to renovate the dock have been delivered to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will review the proposed improvements and seek community input.

However, plans to build a new, larger boat-storage facility are on hold, pending a court ruling on an appeal filed by the marina’s “abutting neighbors.” He said he’s hoping for a ruling later this month, “but we’re at the mercy of the court.”

Prior to Cotugno’s presentation, Woelfle released the results of an online survey conducted by “Let’s Talk Vero,” which asked about retail possibilities in the city, particularly the downtown area.

More than 1,900 local residents responded – 68 percent from the mainland, 32 percent from the island, and 71 percent were city residents.

A whopping 96 percent of respondents expressed a desire to have a Trader Joe’s grocery store in Vero Beach.

As for types of retail that respondents wanted to see downtown: cafes, bistros and casual dining options (60 percent); a farmer’s market (48 percent); wine, cheese, specialty meats and gourmet shop (40 percent); bakery (39 percent); locally owned and operated businesses (33 percent); fine dining (32 percent); small bookstore, gift shop and stationery (25 percent); café with work space (22.5 percent); ice cream shop (20 percent); small grocery store (16.5 percent); florist/garden shop (15 percent); pet shop (6 percent) and hair salon/barber shop (4 percent).

The survey revealed that only 43 percent of the respondents often shop downtown, while 52.5 percent rarely shop there and almost 5 percent never do.

However, 91 percent of respondents indicated they would be more likely to go downtown if shopping, dining and strolling experiences were upgraded.

Lastly, when asked for their shopping preferences downtown, along Ocean Drive and at the planned Three Corners site, 68 percent of respondents preferred smaller, mom-and-pop stores.

Only 38.5 percent of respondents preferred large, big-box, department stores, while 45 percent don’t want them.
Woelfle said she would send the survey’s results to Gibbs, whom she hopes will use them in his downtown retail study.