I live in Stuart, Florida, which is part of Martin County. As in most of the United States, our economy is in the doldrums. South Florida’s economy is probably in tougher shape because of our heavy dependence on real estate development and construction. There is no facet in our lives where that real property does not play a role. It is vital to the economy of the nation. While real estate is one of the important legs on which our economy stands, the dependence on the one facet of land development from farmland to city is what has put the economy of Florida into such free fall. The local economy will not get better until we stop resorting to the same real estate development of the past.
For over a hundred years, Florida has been legendary for its boom and bust cycles. Our land booms are spectacular and our busts just as renowned. On the heavily populated east coast, Florida’s development occurred late in relation to the other east coast states. Climate, topography and geography isolated the state until the 20th century. While today Florida has 19 million people and is the fourth most populous state, in 1900 our population of 528,500 people was just above New Hampshire and Vermont on the eastern seaboard.
In what section of the state people lived has dramatically changed over the same period. In 1900, 70% of the population lived in the northern third of the state while only 8% lived in South Florida. While the United States was settled and explored from east to west, Florida was settled from north to south with much of that area under populated. In the 1930 census (the first census after formation of the Martin County), Martin had a population of 5111. It wasn’t until 1990 that we had over 100,000 people.
So why is it that Florida’s economy has more severe boom and bust cycles than most of the rest of the nation? Our main industries today are agriculture, tourism, trade with Central and South America and land development. Our exponential population growth is due to people wanting the “Florida lifestyle.” As the population increased, farmers decided it was more advantageous to develop their property for subdivisions than to continue producing crops and livestock. For the past seventy years, our state and local governments decided it was easier to allow the building of hundreds of thousands of new homes and shopping centers than to encourage a more diverse business development.
I have been a licensed real estate broker for over 40 years. I have bought, sold, owned, leased and managed residential and commercial real estate during that period. I am licensed in several states including Florida. I am both a CPM and CCIM and have taught different real estate at several schools in my career. If there is one thing I understand, it is the business of real estate. I know how vital the real estate industry is to a community. But government has only concentrated on one facet of that industry to the detriment of creating an integrated real estate and business economy.
To the south and north of Martin County land development has gone awry. Whether through greed, arrogance or stupidity, our politicians have allowed the sensitive environmental eco-system of Florida to be paved over. While construction added many jobs to the economy, those jobs are short term. Once the structure is built, those workers are out of jobs. There has been no economic planning for the future… only the present. Development for the sake of development is idiotic. Economic benefits go to the few and the tax payer is left with the bill of unchecked real estate expansion. If there are too many homes and commercial properties being built, then the value of all those properties will continue to fall. It is the simple law of supply and demand.
What has saved Martin County from having a similar fate as our neighbors is our Comprehensive Plan. Development for the foreseeable future should be confined within the Urban Services District. As I drive down Federal Highway (US Route 1), I see so much vacant and underutilized property for development and re-development. It is foolish not to take advantage of the infrastructure already in place.
We, as the residents, do not need our elected officials to be lobbyists for the development interests. We do not need them to stretch and change the rules to accommodate land speculators. It is preposterous to think that certain people and industries need “fast tracking”, tax subsidies and reducing or waiving of fees. Wouldn’t a smarter plan be to have a level playing field for all business? Why should I as a tax payer and small business person subsidize someone else’s business? Aren’t all businesses in the county entitled to the same level of services and to pay the same amount in impact fees and taxes?
Instead of the make-believe world that a majority of our current elected officials live in, we need to have our county and city commissions look to develop the plentiful resources within the Urban Service District. Instead of a “tool kit” to bribe a few cronies, we need “a large inclusive box” that treats all business people equally. In a community such as ours it is far better to have a hundred employers of 10 employees than one super employer with a thousand employees. In a downturn more people will keep their jobs.
Employment, especially high tech employment, is undergoing tremendous change. Frequently, people are being engaged not as fulltime employees but rather on a project by project basis. A Company based in Seattle will hire experts siting and working in London, Shanghai, Kolkata and Stuart for an individual project. We can’t build buildings for purposes that won’t exist in five years. The promises made for the future will turn out to be broken.
The continued economy of Florida and Martin County must not look to out dated and old ways of doing business. The building of vast tracts of homes and office complexes is not the key to economic development. It will only lead to further sprawl and decay. New businesses will develop organically within the Urban Service District if the taxpayers and their elected representatives provide the right atmosphere for them. We shouldn’t squander the resources and infrastructure we already possess within the county. Let’s spend our tax dollars on bringing that infrastructure into the 21st century. The buildings, roads, houses and utilities already exist. We just need to use them correctly.