Fort Pierce residents can be their city's toughest critics.
At Tuesday's City Commission meeting, one resident described Fort Pierce as "struggling with negative branding." Another said the town is battling "perception issues."
But maybe not for much longer.
At the same meeting where those residents offered pointed critiques of their hometown, commissioners gave preliminary approval to site plans for two projects that could change the way people think about Fort Pierce.
The commission approved on first reading the first phase of Willow Lakes Resort Village, a 200-acre mixed-use project near the Midway Road interchange at Interstate 95.
Then the commission approved the first reading of a revised site plan for King's Landing, a mixed-use project planned for 7½ acres between Second Street and Indian River Drive downtown.
Both votes were unanimous. And while a few citizens expressed reservations about King's Landing, both projects were generally met with lots of enthusiasm.
Put it this way: If people watching the meeting had been playing a drinking game where they had to take a shot every time someone used the words "game changer" to describe one of those projects, there would have been a lot of drunk people in the Sunrise City by the end of the night.
Located on opposite sides of town, Willow Lakes and King's Landing are unique for different reasons.
The centerpiece of Willow Lakes would be a huge swimming pool that creates up to 1,000 waves an hour and could accommodate about 100 surfers at a time.
According to Wave Pool Magazine, an industry trade publication, there are only 19 similar facilities in the world, although more are planned or under construction.
Willow Lakes also would include 600 hotel rooms; 150 townhomes; 150 single-family homes; 700 multi-family homes; and 650,000 square feet of commercial space, which could include offices, a shopping center, entertainment, restaurants, a convenience store and pharmacy.
The proposal also includes plans for a TopGolf entertainment venue, rock-climbing wall and cliff-diving area.
I'll admit I know nothing about surfing other than what I was able to learn by watching the movie, "Point Break," approximately 3,647 times.
I do wonder how many surfers will choose to visit the so-called Wavegarden when the Atlantic Ocean is so close. Yet access to the ocean hasn't curbed the market for swimming pools along the Treasure Coast, so maybe we should think about Wavegarden in a similar way.
After all, conditions in the ocean aren't always optimal for surfing. Also, the wave pool could give surfers a place to teach and practice their craft in a predictable environment.
In any case, it's something different from what you find in other communities along the coast.
King's Landing is special in part because it would dramatically increase housing downtown.
The plans call for 106 luxury condominiums and eight townhouses. That's important because having more people living downtown will infuse the area with new energy after normal business hours.
King's Landing would bring new restaurants and shops, too. During his presentation about the project, developer Dale Matteson said those businesses will be locally owned, rather than chains.
"You won't find an Applebee's or Carrabba's in King's Landing," he said. "They've approached us, but that's not what we're after."
Instead, patrons would be able to visit popular spots like Pierced Ciderworks, Pickled, 12A Buoy, Cobb's Landing, and Steamworks Coffeebar, which plan to expand their operations to King's Landing.
The culinary school at Indian River State College would operate one of the restaurants, called The Kids are Cooking. How much fun would it be to serve as guinea pigs for the students' new recipes?
During the public hearing before the commission's vote, there was considerable discussion about the proposed height of the high-rise condos.
A few people in the audience said the condo building — either 10 or 11 stories, depending on how you choose to count them — would be so big it would detract from Fort Pierce's small-town charm.
However, the project's supporters outnumbered critics almost three to one. Several people expressed hope the building's rooftop bar and restaurant would be open to the public rather than just condo residents.
Although that isn't spelled out in the agreement with Matteson's company, Audubon Development, it certainly would build goodwill in the community if local residents were able to enjoy bird's eye views of the city and its waterfront while knocking back adult beverages on the rooftop.
King's Landing would also feature a "destination" hotel, which is an amenity residents have been seeking for years. It could help Fort Pierce become a small player in the convention and meetings business, which is a subset of the tourism market the city hasn't really been able to tap.
There was discussion about how the project would put more strain on parking downtown.
Several commissioners acknowledged the need to create more parking opportunities. One place to start would be for the city to take Matteson up on his offer to add one or two more decks to the parking garage that's already planned.
That could create an additional 140 spaces on top of the 299 Audubon plans to build.
There was much discussion about the economic impact the two projects would have on the city — creating jobs and generating more spending and tax revenues. I don't doubt the projects will provide those types of benefits, although estimating the amounts is an inexact science.
My advice to city officials is to invest a substantial amount of the extra tax revenues to improve residential neighborhoods throughout the city. That might help quiet some critics who contend King's Landing represents too much change, too fast.
Two projects — as grand as they are — aren't going to completely transform Fort Pierce's image all by themselves. But they, along with Fisherman's Wharf, another mixed-use project planned for the southern end of the Port of Fort Pierce, can be the building blocks for a civic future that looks quite different.
"This project will show downtown Fort Pierce does work," Lee Dobbins, an attorney representing Audubon, said of King's Landing. "Other investors will follow."
Last I checked, you couldn't buy stock in cities. If you could, though, now seems like it would be a good time to pick up a few shares of Fort Pierce.
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Wave park, King's Landing herald Fort Pierce's bright future | Opinion