Hard-Hit Boomtown Considers Emergency Measures Only a couple of years ago, Port St. Lucie, on Florida's Atlantic coast, was the fastest-growing city in America. But desperate times have led the county commission to consider declaring itself a disaster area.
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Hard-Hit Boomtown Considers Emergency Measures

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Hard-Hit Boomtown Considers Emergency Measures

Hard-Hit Boomtown Considers Emergency Measures

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H: one of economic withdrawal symptoms, and another of hopes for a cure. First, the symptoms. A couple of years ago, Port St. Lucie, on Florida's Atlantic coast, was the fastest-growing city in America. Thanks to the cheap land and beautiful weather, the town was enjoying a building boom.

Now, the county may declare a state of emergency. The housing market has collapsed, as it has in many other places. In a few minutes, we'll hear how one lumber company is trying to respond to the downturn.

First, NPR's Greg Allen in Florida.

GREG ALLEN: They called this part of Florida the Treasure Coast. During the area's building boom, lots of treasure seekers moved here, attracted not by sunken Spanish galleons, but by affordable housing. But that was then. Today, Port St. Lucie, the county's largest city, is a suburban dream gone bad. It has the nation's eighth worst foreclosure rate.

Overgrown lots, vacant houses, and sale-by-bank signs are found on nearly every block. Brad Hunter, an analyst with Metrostudy, a housing research firm, says St. Lucie's blessing eventually became its curse.

M: Too many houses got built, ultimately, because too many developers were drawn by the large land supplies that were available. And people were enticed to buy the homes because they kept going up in value or in price. So, ultimately, it was the same kind of boom that happened everywhere, but it just happened to a greater degree in St. Lucie.

ALLEN: Many retirees moved here - also, people looking for jobs in the busy construction industry. You can find some of both every Thursday at St. Lucie Catholic Church, where a free, hot meal is served. In the past year, volunteers say they've seen the number of people coming in climb from a few dozen each week to more than 150. Construction worker Dennis Gonzalez(ph) has been laid off now for two years.

M: I've seen a lot of people out of work. I've seen a lot of people losing their homes right now. I've seen a lot of foreclosures.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH MEAL SERVICE)

M: Two children, please.

U: Two children. You'll get a (unintelligible). Here you go, sir.

ALLEN: Across the parish hall, Johnny Sweeney(ph) was there with his wife and three daughters.

M: Well, I'm a mortgage loan officer, so I've seen a lot. And this area is really depressed. The hurricanes created a huge construction boom. A lot of people moved here from out of state to make big bucks. And then all of a sudden, everything crashed on them, so it's pretty hard.

ALLEN: That's the backdrop for a proposal made recently by St. Lucie County Commissioner Doug Coward. Coward wants the county to declare a state of emergency. Doing so would give administrators access to $17 million in county emergency reserve funds. That money, combined with a transportation fund and other accounts, would give St. Lucie 20 or $30 million to spend on building projects, research parks, highways and other infrastructure improvements.

Some commissioners say they're unsure about dipping into funds that might be needed for hurricanes or other, future disasters. Coward says the emergency is now. Unemployment is at 10.5 percent and last year, nearly 11,000 homes went into foreclosure.

M: That impact far exceeded the cumulative impact of three hurricanes that hit us in 13 months. So, I believe that the economy has risen to the level of a man-made disaster, and that it would be appropriate for us to consider using some of those dollars to assist local residents through job creation.

ALLEN: St. Lucie is the first county in Florida, and probably the nation, to consider taking what might seem like an extreme measure. Coward says beyond freeing up money, it would have another practical benefit. A disaster declaration would allow the county to streamline the bidding process, and allow officials to reserve contracts for local companies and workers.

While it's waiting for federal stimulus dollars to trickle down, Coward says this is a way for St. Lucie County to move quickly to put its people back to work.

M: I believe that the economic crisis is something that our nation is going through, and I think it's incumbent upon all levels of government to step up and try and contribute toward solutions.

ALLEN: St. Lucie's county commission is expected to vote on the economic disaster declaration within the next few weeks. In the meantime, St. Lucie is talking to other, nearby counties about pooling their funds and making it a regional initiative.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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