- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

FORT PIERCE, FLA. (AP) - A South Florida county that rode high through the housing boom earlier this decade, then crashed hard when the foreclosure crisis struck, declared a state of economic emergency on Tuesday.

St. Lucie County’s action authorizes $25 million to $30 million for a slate of new construction projects _ with the condition they use largely local labor and supplies _ in hopes of jump-starting a sorely distressed local economy.

However, the county commission toed a careful line, insisting the government itself was financially healthy while expressing dire need.

“The whole country is in an economic crisis,” Commissioner Doug Coward said. “Clearly a declaration of local economic emergency sends a message of distress, but in my opinion, we need to balance that with the optimism that I think we in the board have.”

Officials are trying to throw a lifeline to the 25 percent to 40 percent of unemployed workers in sectors of the formerly lucrative construction industry. Winning contractors must use at least 75 percent of labor, supplies and materials from local sources.

The National Association of Counties had said it knew of no other U.S. county that was contemplating such a move as St. Lucie.

Even though the county has recently attracted several high-wage biotechnology companies, it still has an overall jobless rate of 12.8 percent. That’s third highest among Florida’s 67 counties and well above both the statewide 9.7 figure and the nation’s 8.5 percent rate. Although the construction industry has been decimated, the job losses cover the spectrum from hospitality to finance, government and even education and health care.

It was the booming construction industry that let St. Lucie, and several other areas in Florida and out West, grow so fast and fall so far. Property values skyrocketed in the boom from 2000 to 2007 as the population of its largest city, Port St. Lucie, nearly doubled to 151,000.

But there was no safety net after it burst. More than 10,000 homes were foreclosed last year _ three times more than the total amount in three previous hurricanes, Coward said. Right now one in 87 home in St. Lucie _ about 100 miles north of Miami _ is on its way to bank repossession.

Few at the public meeting seemed opposed, but Bob Schafer, president of the Associated General Contractors of America’s Florida East Coast Chapter, said the local requirements on contractors hardly seemed enforceable.

Commissioners acknowledged it would be tough, but said they had to try something.

“I don’t care what we have to do to get it done _ we need to get our people to work now,” Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky said. “I want to put people to work. I want to keep people in their homes.”

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