A hidden gem on the Treasure Coast
Business View Magazine interviews representatives of Sebastian, Florida for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Cities
Sebastian, Florida emerged as a small fishing village in the 1870s. It wasn’t long after the arrival of Henry Flagler’s locomotives along the Florida East Coast Railway that the area flourished as a trading post for fishing, boating, outdoor enthusiasts and locals alike. Named after Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes and sports, the modern-day city retains much of its historical maritime flavor, with sweeping views of the Indian River Lagoon and easy access to some of the secret beaches on the famous Treasure Coast.
Today, the quaint riverfront “village” boasts the rankings of the largest city in Indian River County and biggest population center between Palm Bay to the northwest and Fort Pierce to the southeast. Home to a community of just over 25,000, it’s a neat little place to go sightseeing, tiki bar-hopping, or have a true “Old Florida” fishing experience.
“We call ourselves a bedroom community with a sense of place,” declares City Manager Paul Carlisle. “We have a great natural environment that centers on the lagoon. We have a great community that reaches out, connects and is involved with our seniors and our youth. The city has a fantastic business climate which provides plenty of job opportunities, plus outdoor activities, parks, recreation, and conservation lands. You’ll discover that we have all of the amenities and none of the traffic or hustle and bustle of other communities.”
Sebastian was just rated the seventh best place in the State of Florida to retire to by WalletHub and was ranked #1 in quality of life by a national news source. “That doesn’t just go for the retirement community – it’s also for our young family demographic,” Carlisle explains. “We’re here to partner with all of our residents and work for them to make sure they have that quality of life and those amenities that they want and expect.”
Having recently completed its Comprehensive Plan Update, the city is armed with a clear vision and focus for how the community wants to grow and develop over the next 20 years. “What was interesting to note in that process was that Sebastian’s median age used to be much older – as in the mid-50s,” shares Lisa Frazier, Director of Community Development/Community Redevelopment Agency Manager. “Now it’s into the 40s and I think that’s telling. Younger families find it to be just the type of atmosphere they want to raise their children around. And we’re an easy commute to some of the larger employment centers to the north and south.”
Carlisle adds, “Because of low traffic volumes, residents of Sebastian tend to measure their commutes in drive time rather than drive miles. Anything within 30 to 45 minutes is considered respectable. That puts you 20 to 30 miles away. So, our population is well-dispersed within the employment centers around us, in the community college and healthcare sectors.”
Sebastian sits on part of the Space Coast – home to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and the Space X Rocket Assembly Site at Cocoa Beach. As such, it attracts a lot of attention from aerospace and aeronautical industries. According to Carlisle, “We have Whelen Aerospace Technologies, a global leader in aerospace lighting, and Velocity Aircraft, which specializes in composite, high performance cross-country machines. So, we have within our community a lot of service, manufacturing, and construction jobs. It’s really a mixed bag of opportunities.”
Steward Medical Group, which is the largest private tax-paying hospital operator in the country, also has a presence in Sebastian. In 2017, they purchased the Sebastian River Medical Center, unlocking access to high-quality, compassionate, value-based care in Indian River County. “They’ve put in place a lot of niche doctors, from gastroenterologists to orthopedists to nephrologists,” says Carlisle. “It’s a full-service system that’s dispersed throughout our community. They’ve been partnering up with large employers and pooling businesses to create medical care hubs. So, you can get a knee replacement for about half the cost of what other hospitals charge. It’s a win-win because it saves our businesses on healthcare costs, recovery time, and travel.”
According to Sue Skirvin, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Board, the success of Steward’s initiative comes down to the community being close-knit and proud to be part of something so special. “Our businesses work well together,” she maintains. “As Chamber members, we’re big on referring one business to another. We’re always striving to get new members involved in the events that we do – monthly luncheons, breakfasts, and what we call “After Hours” or a “Business and Pleasure”. We also have great support staff who are very outreaching to the members, fielding questions and getting them established in the area.”
The staff also helps with the Chamber’s signature events, like the annual Pelican Cup Golf Tournament at the Sebastian Municipal Golf Course. “In addition to that, we work with all five of the city’s unique food and nature festivals,” notes Cheryl Thibault, President/CEO for the Sebastian Chamber of Commerce. “These events are big and the Sebastian River Area truly is a hidden treasure. We’d love to keep it that way, but the truth is that we really are exploding.”
To enhance these events and drive revenue growth, the city is developing its Riverview Park area and coming through with a Park Master Plan to create a grand promenade that would allow for more public involvement in these types of outdoor community affairs. “About 10 years ago, we purchased what we call Fisherman’s Landing in an attempt to revive a working waterfront area along the lagoon as part of Sebastian’s fishing village heritage,” says Carlisle. The vision for the project was ultimately to link several parcels together to educate the public about the community’s roots in commercial fishing through a retail/wholesale seafood house, exhibitions, educational venues, and events.
“The fishing piers were going to close down but we were able to get a Florida Community Trust grant worth $3.1 million to purchase the property,” Carlisle adds. “And that’s re-energized the whole area down there. It gives patrons and visitors an opportunity to go see how commercial fishing efforts are managed. It’s been a big event for us as a city and a big economic turn for that downtown district. It’s spurred off additional restaurants, different shops, and there’s some interest in the vacant properties now.”
The Comprehensive Plan Update has been set up to chart Sebastian’s future course with respect to housing, infrastructure and workforce sustainability. “Like any typical bedroom community, we have a plethora of single-family homes, which is wonderful and makes the community great,” says Frazier. “But, through the update, we’ve recognized that we have a missing middle. We really lack attainable housing, which always takes you more into multifamily-type units – the condos, the apartments. Fortunately, we have several projects in the early stages of submittal to the Community Development Department for review, and they’re multi-unit, affordable housing projects. Some are going to be duplexes with a little higher density than what we’ve currently been able to offer.”
The point is to provide for those service industry individuals who need more attainable housing than Florida, or any place across the country, currently supplies. “When you talk about service industry, that’s not just servers in restaurants,” Frazier states. “We’re talking about dental hygienists, the police force and teachers. These are professionals who serve us and fulfill our needs. That’s what we’re trying to attain right now. And we have a huge development coming on the market called Spirit of Sebastian. We’ve been working on it with the developer, Chuck Mechling, for years. It has that mix of housing we’ve been talking about, so we’re excited for it to get going.”
The city has just launched the Sustainable Sebastian program, an initiative endorsed by the City Council in a 2019 resolution to be a better friend to the Planet Earth. “We’re moving forward and weaving that into all of our major projects – our Stormwater Master Plan, our coastal resiliency efforts, even our Integrated Pest Management Plan,” Frazier shares. “We’re probably the first in the State to do that.”
Carlisle acknowledges that sustainability has been in his sights since he first took the position of City Manager in 2018. He notes, “Of course you can talk about it from an environmental perspective, but I’m interested in creating sustainable jobs in sustainable local industries, so that our restaurants and our shops don’t have to live on tourism dollars during the winter and then struggle in the summer. Not just construction. Not just tourism. Industry, Education, Manufacturing. These are the types of jobs that can support our businesses throughout the year, through the peaks and the valleys.”
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AT A GLANCE
What: A quaint, riverside city; population 25,000
Where: Indian River County, Florida