Power plant loser for Vero Beach? You haven't seen Kessler's Plant Riverside | Opinion

Laurence Reisman   | Treasure Coast Newspapers This is the first of two columns on this topic.It’s b

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Laurence Reisman   | Treasure Coast Newspapers

This is the first of two columns on this topic.

It’s been one thing to see urban designer Andres Duany’s amazing plans and hear him talk about possibilities for what Vero Beach could do with its old power and sewer plant sites along the Indian River Lagoon.

It was another to speak the other day with a visionary behind a new waterfront “entertainment district” in Savannah, Georgia.

There's some similarity. Plant Riverside District is anchored on 4.5 acres of an old power plant about a quarter the size of Vero Beach’s old electric plant site on the southwest side of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge.

“I wanted to do something as a gift to the city for something it really needed to get to the next step in its tourism,” Richard Kessler, a Savannah native, told me.

So at the west end of the city’s river walk, Kessler’s company spent $9 million in 2014 to buy an old power complex dating to 1912. On July 29 the district opened, bringing tourists and local residents together.

Plant Riverside is much more intense than what Duany presented Jan. 31 to Vero Beach when he got a standing ovation from hundreds at the First Presbyterian Church. Among the most important commonalities: getting people together to have fun, especially outdoors.

Duany’s plan — based on a community survey and week-long series of public meetings — proposed the former Vero Beach power plant be renovated into a conference center. The 1960s-era plant would house a bar, various meeting rooms and rooftop dining. There’d be a 140-room hotel with Indian River Lagoon views and an upstairs pool.

The public would enjoy open space and amenities along the lagoon, including a fishing pier, docks, restaurants, sailing, skateboarding, beach volleyball and more.

Vero Beach leaders continue to ponder how to execute proposals Duany has amended the past eight months.

In Savannah, you can see results of a reported $375 million investment designed by Kessler's team to create unique experiences with each trip to the site.

The project includes three boutique hotels totaling 419 rooms, all under the J.W. Marriott brand. The hotels offer different experiences — one focused on beauty, a second on power and a third on water.

Boutique hotels are what Kessler — former president and CEO of Days Inn of America — has become known for after visiting Europe in 1979 and recognizing travelers want unique experiences.

His Orlando-based Kessler Collection of national hotels includes a renovated courthouse, mansions and a bottling plant. They include the top-notch Casa Monica in St. Augustine and the Bohemian Hotels in several cities, including Orlando.    

A Plant Riverside press release touts public access to an art gallery and natural science, including a 135-foot chrome-dipped dinosaur; oversized geodes, gemstones and fossils; a pre-historic tortoise shell; an Ice Age bear; and the world's largest nugget of copper.

That doesn’t include two fountains Kessler said were designed to keep children engaged while touring historic Savannah with their parents. There’s a third fountain — the largest on the east coast, he was told — featuring original musical compositions tied to water light shows.

There’s also a landscaped park dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., with a stage and room for 700 seats. Over the weekend, Kessler said, about 350 people were outside to watch circus artists perform evening shows.

It's the antithesis of what Duany has called boring parks no one ever uses — the kind he thinks Vero Beach should avoid.

The free events in Savannah attract people who want to dine in one of 13 venues at various price levels — indoors, outdoors and on the roof — everything from a chophouse and pizza place to a beer garden and cookie store. There are an array of local retailers and galleries, a spa and ballrooms.

The Atlantic, one of the hotels, is expected to open in 2021. It will include a Live Nation music venue and 500-space parking deck Kessler said would be enclosed by, except for two entrances, commercial space.

And it’s all on just a fraction of the 17-acre Vero Beach power plant site. 

More: Can Fort Pierce's 7-acre former power plant site be a model for Vero Beach? 

More: Saving Big Blue: Would St. Louis-inspired version work in Vero Beach?

More: Duany gets rousing applause, standing ovation after three corners plan

After speaking to Kessler, a Georgia Tech engineering alumnus, I recognized an apt description of him in the Savannah newspaper.

“Kessler is not just a hotelier," columnist N.W. Gabbey wrote. "He is the contemporary incarnation of Conrad Hilton, John Jacob Astor, James Smithson, and Walt Disney — with a dash of Willy Wonka sprinkled on top — and what Kessler so clearly wanted to create at Plant Riverside was a composite amusement compound, a place that feeds every appetite, where visitors can spend a night, eat a meal, drink a cocktail, relax on the riverfront, and even learn.”

That's exactly what I’ve heard so many people — especially folks in their 20s and 30s — say they’d like on the three corners Vero Beach owns at 17th Street and Indian River Boulevard.

Kessler used his own thorough visioning process to determine what to do in Savannah. He said he engaged dozens of community leaders, then convened three separate teams led by architects who designed their own plans, but eventually united on one. Each brought a "genius" idea to the table.

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“We’ve stuck with (the plan),” said Kessler, who has been overwhelmed by all the activity and positive feedback at Plant Riverside, despite COVID-19.

Unfortunately, I have not yet been to Savannah to check it out. The concepts of preserving community history, providing room for waterfront enjoyment and entertainment fit in with Duany's "standing ovation" vision for Vero Beach.

Could such a project work in Vero Beach? Kessler has some thoughts, which I'll share in another column.

This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Support his work by subscribing to TCPalm. Contact him via email at larry.reisman@tcpalm.com, phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman

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