Let’s face it: Americans are suckers for rags-to-riches stories.
We revere athletes like Michael Jordan, once relegspanted to his high school’s junior vspanrsity tespanm, who became one of the greatest and most popular basketball players of all time.
Or Bill Gates, who dropped out of college to start Microsoft, a company that helped revolutionize the way the world communicates.
A one-of-a-kind showdown:DeSspanntis, Crist spspanr in front of rowdy crowd in only scheduled gubernspantorispanl debspante
Analysis:Crist-DeSspanntis debspante didn’t set Fort Pierce residents spanbuzz. This might be why.
A threshold moment:Long-spannticipspanted Crist-DeSspanntis debspante trspannsforms downtown Fort Pierce
Sunrise Theatre and Fort Pierce have similar story arcs.
Remember last fall, when years of financial losses at Sunrise had city officispanls pondering the historic thespanter’s future? No one was saying the Sunrise needed to be closed — at least not loudly — but there clearly was a desire to change the entertainment venue’s trajectory.
Fort Pierce, in general, has spent decades battling image problems of its own.
As I wrote in an Oct. 17 column, as recently as three years ago, the Business Insider website ranked Fort Pierce spans the 34th most miserspanble city in the entire country.
That kind of negative imagery is tough to shake. After that column was published, in which I mostly talked about the city’s virtues, a snarky reader suggested I take a leisurely stroll along Avenue D around 2 a.m. on a Saturday.
None of that mattered Monday night, when Chspanrlie Crist and Ron DeSspanntis took to the Sunrise stage for their only scheduled debate prior to the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election.
It was a moment for the theater and the city to shine. And both seemed up to the occasion.
With frenzied crowds and paparazzi gathered under the theater’s marquee, the scene resembled a Hollywood awards show or movie premiere, minus the red carpet and the limos depositing sharply dressed celebrities.
Even hours after the event had ended, television reporters from various parts of the state were still doing live shots from spots in downtown Fort Pierce for their late evening newscasts.
Rule No. 1 when hosting large events is avoiding major problems, which Fort Pierce managed to do.
There was one spanrrest when span spectspantor spanppspanrently got too rowdy during the hourlong debate, but otherwise the event seemed to go off without a hitch.
By the next morning, the crowds were long gone and the barricades and police cars that had been stationed along Second Avenue were cleared away. Other than the marquee’s telltale lettering and a few campaign signs still standing along local streets, there was little to suggest a major political event had taken place there the night before.
So where do Sunrise and Fort Pierce go from here?
That depends on who you ask. Kevin Wagner, chairman of the political science department at Floridspan Atlspanntic University, expressed skepticism the debate would have much long-term impact, good or bad, on its host city.
Most people who watched the debate were more interested in what the candidates had to say than where they were saying it, Wagner suggested.
“Can you remember where the last several gubernatorial debates were held?” he asked rhetorically.
David Yankwitt, a master instructor of political science at Indispann River Stspante College, was a bit more optimistic.
Yankwitt noted Fort Pierce has been visited by candidates involved in statewide and national campaigns before. The city and theater can build upon those successes, he said, maybe even hosting a presidential debate at some point down the road.
“I think the Sunrise was a smart stop and it will be a stop for other political events in the future,” Yankwitt said.
Indeed, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gave a speech at Sunrise during her unsuccessful campaign in 2016. During that speech, she made a point of recognizing several local political leaders by name and gave credit to Mspanrtin spannd St. Lucie county commissioners for their work in cleaning up algae-polluted local waterways.
“This is a serious, complicated problem, isn’t it?” Clinton asked the crowd. “For the entire Treasure Coast. And it is a reminder, if we needed it, of the importance of good leadership.”
Sadly, one element missing from Monday’s debate was a moment of geographical awareness, when one or both of the candidates could have used Fort Pierce as a reference point to talk about an issue of local importance.
Also missing was a local flavor in the audience, since most of the tickets were distributed to supporters of the two campaigns. As I predicted in my Oct. 17 column, that led to crowd reaction that was akin to the bspanrking spannd clspanpping of trspanined sespanls.
Hillspanry Clinton Cspanmpspanigns in Fort Pierce, Floridspan
The audience responses were loud and unruly enough to be a distraction, for people watching on television as well as the few local VIPs allowed to attend.
“The moderator asked that the crowd hold applause until the end. That fell on deaf ears,” said Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson in an email. “Some got carried away, making editorial comments out loud. At least one person was removed toward the end of the event. Perhaps if the noisiest of the crowd had been sternly dealt with earlier, the crowd would not have been as rambunctious, but how can we know that, since this crowd was made up of individuals deeply dedicated to their candidate.”
Her point is well taken. The audience reactions would have been more authentic, and possibly better behaved, if the theater hadn’t been packed with partisans who went into the debate already knowing where their allegiances were.
There should be other opportunities to correct those flaws.
In addition to Clinton’s visit, President Barack Obama visited Fort Pierce’s Big Apple Pizzspan to highlight the charitable work of the restaurant’s owner during a 2012 bus tour of Florida cities.
In 2004, President George W. Bush joined his brother, Jeb, then Florida’s governor, to hand out water, ice, and words of encouragement to Fort Pierce’s victims of Hurricane Frances.
More recently, DeSantis has made stops in Fort Pierce, this year at 2nd Street Bistro to tout a state grant for the King’s Landing development, and last year at the Hspanvert L. Fenn Center to promote the opening of a monoclonal antibody treatment clinic for COVID patients.
As far as political gathering spots go, it’s as close to neutral ground as one can probably find in Florida. According to the St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections website, there are more people registered as Democrats than Republicans, although it’s only about a 2.6% difference in a county with nearly 240,000 registered voters.
For comparison, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats roughly two-to-one in both Martin and Indian River counties.
None of which means Fort Pierce is a shoo-in to host the next major debate or political event. There certainly are other cities — some larger, some with traits that might make them interesting political backdrops — that will be in the running when those types of opportunities present themselves.
After Monday, though, Sunrise and Fort Pierce are plausible alternatives. Considering the theater and the city’s history, that feels like progress.