I don’t want to rain on a big parade.
Because it’s been a loud, happy parade. Ever since news of the proposed “SurfWorks Resorts” surf park that would anchor the 200-acre “Willow Lakes” development in Fort Pierce hit the headlines, the enthusiasm has been overwhelming.
Fort Pierce commissioners were practically giddy during the Sept. 21 meeting when discussing the project with the developers. Reader interest in our stories has been off the charts. Surfers are thrilled.
I mean, come on: The simulated wave park could be the biggest in the country, maybe the world. The entire $595 million project would include 800 homes, 600 hotel rooms, 400,000 square feet of retail and 125,000 square feet of offices. Thousands of jobs could be created.
Heck, developers have also said they want a Topgolf, which any other day of the week is headline news. Here, it’s only been mentioned in passing because it’s merely part of the dazzling mix.
This Willow Lakes project is the greatest thing since spray-on sunscreen! Everyone agrees!
And it’s at that point I begin to get the whiff of a lemming migration and wonder if we shouldn’t tap the brakes.
Like everyone else, I’m floored by the proposal. It’s as if Fort Pierce hit the lottery.
But a lot has to happen between now and the first “surf’s up.” Lots of questions have to be asked by public officials and city and county residents. Lots of promises are being made by the developers.
It’s an awesome project. But we can’t let enthusiasm drive the bus while scrutiny sits in the back seat — or gets stuffed in the trunk.
That technology’s only being used at three other WaveGarden lagoons in the world. And it wasn’t permitted under Florida law — until the developers lobbied state officials, who subsequently backed legislation exempting the surf park from state law.
Attorney W. Lee Dobbins, who represents developers Bob Labonte and his son, Chad, told TCPalm it’s in the developers’ “best interest to ensure the public’s safety, given the significant investment in the resort.”
Sure. But what if the developers sell the project after building it?
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Health now has to come up with rules for surf pools. Until it does, the city of Fort Pierce might need to regulate the surf park and make sure the water is clean.
Does the city have the capacity to do that?
“While we haven’t fleshed out the exact details, the city of Fort Pierce is confident that we are capable of permitting and regulating this with the help of our local partners,” wrote Mayor Linda Hudson in response to my email inquiry.
The Fort Pierce Utilities Authority, South Florida Water Management District and Florida Department of Environmental Protection could all be part of the mix. Third-party inspections paid for by the surf park would also take place, she said.
Other issues could crop up. For example, will the site work?
This isn’t the first “world class wave park” proposed in the region. Up until early 2019 it looked like a facility designed by surf legend Kelly Slater would be built in Jupiter. But then the World Surf League — which in 2018 bought the rights to the Kelly Slater Wave Co. — canceled the project because of an extremely high water table at the site.
Could the Fort Pierce project run into similar issues? We don’t know yet.
Interestingly, Chad Labonte said when he dreamed up the wave pool concept in 2018, he initially approached the Kelly Slater Wave Co. about building in Fort Pierce. The company turned him down and the Labontes subsequently turned to WaveGarden, which couldn’t be reached for comment.
Anyway: Even if the soils and water table on the site work, what about the location?
Pete Tesch of the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County said Fort Pierce “has great potential” but isn’t (yet?) widely known as a premiere tourist destination.
So the facility could be built; but “can you also entice the amenities” — the hotel, the residential and retail that would go along with the wave park?
“Pulling all those parts together to make that vision happen is certainly ambitious,” said Tesch. “It’s going to take tremendous collaboration and foresight.”
Ah, but the potential payoff is huge. The surf park alone is expected to create an annual economic impact of $15.6 million. The hotels expected to be part of the development could contribute a whopping $93.6 million annually to the local economy, according to an EDC report.
Think of the tax revenue; think of the jobs. Think of Fort Pierce — the Treasure Coast — becoming known as one of the top surf destinations in the world.
Then think of all the public hearings, the approvals, the hard questions from public officials and neighbors and other citizensthat will need to be asked before we get from here to there.
Like I said, I’m not looking to rain on the parade. This proposal is staggering.
Almost too good to be true.
We just have to make sure that isn’t the case.
Gil Smart is a TCPalm columnist and a member of the Editorial Board. His columns reflect his opinion; if you like what you read please consider subscribing to TCPalm. Gil can be reached at email@example.com, by phone at (772) 223-4741 or via Twitter at @TCPalmGilSmart.