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Jim O’Connor has become a believer.
About five years ago when the Vero Beach power plant along Indian River Boulevard was shuttered, the then-city manager was ready to tear it down and generate $300,000 from the sale of surplus.
“I had just no imagination at all,” O’Connor told me Wednesday after visiting a waterfront power plant in Savannah turned into a high-end hotel and entertainment center. “When I see that transformation, obviously anything can be done.
“It blew my mind. I never would have guessed it was a power plant … the whole thing is beautiful.”
Savannah’s $375 million Plant Riverside District is anchored on 4.5 acres in a former Georgia Power complex begun in 1912. The district, which includes three boutique hotels under the JW Marriott brand, opened July 29, bringing tourists and local residents together.
More: How Kessler’s Plant Riverside relates to Vero Beach, waterfront transformation
The project — albeit on a much more intense, urban scale — reminded me of what architect Andres Duany proposed for the Vero Beach power plant site Jan. 31 after a week of community outreach meetings. His plan, which included a conference center in the old power plant and a 140-unit hotel along with an active waterfront, drew a standing ovation from several hundred residents.
Plant Riverside was built by the Orlando-based Kessler Collection, which specializes in eclectic hotels, from the Casa Monica, an old courthouse in St. Augustine, to the Beaver Creek Lodge in Colorado.
The company’s founder, Richard Kessler, 74, is former CEO of Days Inn. Or, as a Savannah columnist called him, “the contemporary incarnation of Conrad Hilton, John Jacob Astor, James Smithson, and Walt Disney — with a dash of Willy Wonka sprinkled on top.”
More: Urban planner knocks proposed three corners plan ‘out of park’
More: Old power plant loser for Vero Beach? You have not seen Savannah masterpiece
That was my impression speaking with him earlier this week. He’s all about providing quality experiences for not only hotel guests, but the people who gather to see free entertainment, art or science exhibits at his properties.
Enjoying the outdoors and water is effective in Savannah, and there’s no reason — especially given the 35 acres of so of waterfront property where the Vero Beach power and sewage plants sit — it couldn’t happen here, too.
So I asked Kessler about Vero Beach. He’d learned about the three corners from an employee who toured the plant and met with city officials last week.
“It’s got some positives and negatives,” Kessler said, citing the challenges and opportunities of building on an old power site and along the waterfront. “Its a major, major project.”
Challenges of waterfront development, he said, include potential local, state and federal permitting. Power plant renovations could uncover environmental issues, he said.
“If you have a clean site it would be less expensive. Anytime you convert one type of building into another type of use … it costs,” he said. “But … with the old building you get a lot of character and a lot of good stories you would never get out of a new building.”
The uniqueness and water are part of what intrigues him about the Vero Beach-owned land at 17th Street and Indian River Boulevard.
“There is potentially a lot of land to work with to create something of real magnitude,” Kessler said, noting he thinks it could take 5 to 10 years to fully develop something. “The name Vero obviously has cache.”
Then again, he said, the three corners doesn’t have foot traffic like the Savannah river walk.
Not yet. I’ve walked the two-bridge route. If it were safer, it’s an easy walk or bike ride from the power plant to South Beach, Miracle Mile and Royal Palm Pointe. Water taxis or a trolley could make connections fun to the city marina, Riverside Park, downtown, the oceanside shopping district and more.
City Manager Monte Falls said he and Jason Jeffries, the city’s planning and development director, reached out to the Kessler Collection and other groups to get more information on how the city should get proposals for the property.
“We have to devise a way to move forward,” said Falls, noting he’d like to have an amended Three Corners Steering Committee in place by late October, with more public outreach in January. Also in the new year he’d like to find a company to discuss the project with in-depth.
I asked Kessler what he thought Vero Beach should do next.
“The next step is that they need to think about what do they want there. What is needed for Vero?” he said, citing the planning process his team used to determine what would take Savannah to the next level in tourism.
“Not many developers will do what we did, how we did it and invest to the extent we invested, because what we do is hard,” he said. “What we do is high detail on design, high quality and we’re just very particular about our marketing.”
Like O’Connor, Vero Beach council member Robbie Brackett can attest to what he found on a recent trip to Kessler’s JW Marriott.
“It’s been an eye-opener for me to see other projects people have done on waterfront properties,” he said, noting that at Plant Riverside, a crane similar to the one in the Vero Beach plant hangs in one of the old halls. “It’s impressive.”
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Kessler is pleased by the feedback he gets when he visits Plant Riverside.
“Every time I go down there people I’ve never met in my life … come up to me and say this is the most incredible experience in a development I’ve ever seen,” Kessler said, noting they tell him they love the experience, whether it’s the varied food options, the entertainment or just walking around to see the free exhibits.
Some of the visitors are Savannah-area residents friendly with the O’Connors.
“In their wildest dreams they never thought anyone could turn the industrial district into what it has become,” the former city manager said of the refurbished power plant area. “It was very, very impressive.”
This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Support his work by subscribing to TCPalm. Contact him via email at email@example.com, phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman