By Samantha Joseph
MARTIN COUNTY - In honor of Hometown News' 10th anniversary and its growth since then from a four-edition paper in 2002 to one that has covered about 250 miles on Florida's east coast, we take a look back at some of the issues that shaped Martin County in the last decade.
Hometown News launched editions in Martin County, Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce in June 2002.
At that time, the census count showed around 127,000 people living in Martin County, about 20,000 fewer than today.
And as the paper grew, so did the area, making changes that have amazed and impressed area stalwarts, such as Vicki Davis, Martin County's longtime supervisor of elections.
When Ms. Davis first won her post in 2004, voters largely came to the polls on Election Day to cast their ballots.
"The trends have changed," she said. "People are voting by mail and voting early."
In 2008, for instance, her office saw a dramatic drop in voter turnout at the polls. Come Election Day, 69 percent of voters had already cast early ballots, leaving only 31 percent still needing to show up in person to vote.
The convenience of being able to receive ballots at home, educate themselves about candidates, mail in their votes and track them online or by calling the supervisor of elections office has proven an attractive option for many of today's voters.
The growing population also meant changes in the political landscape.
Even though the county remains largely Republican, with more than 50 percent of registered voters affiliated with the GOP, officials are noticing a new trend involving tens of thousands of residents.
About 18,000 voters are currently registered with no party affiliation. The reason, offered Ms. Davis, might be migration from the north, where voters in some states were used to declaring their parties on Election Day, instead of prior to casting ballots, as required by Florida law.
Racially, the area has also grown more integrated in the last decade, as groups such as the East Stuart Historical Society, Stuart Heritage and Martin County Historical Society raise awareness about its rich history, said historian Jay Thompson.
"I've found out that young people of today are finally realizing that we have a great culture to appreciate, and have a renewed sense of pride in their culture," Mr. Thompson said.
"Even many of the buildings that were erected never showed any signs of the black community, for example. But Stuart Heritage and the Martin County Historical Society have done a tremendous job of bringing forward that heritage in the last decade. Otherwise, it was a one-sided history. Over the last 10 years, there has been a definite shift."
Concerted efforts to spread brochures and other literature to civic groups and other organizations have created awareness about cultural celebrations, such as Juneteenth, a holiday which observes the two additional years of slavery blacks in some Confederate states endured after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The last decade has seen an expansion of the administration's efforts to focus on development outside the downtown area. The trolley, for instance, can now take visitors to East Stuart and along newly refurbished areas enhanced by the Community Redevelopment Agency, Mr. Thompson said.
The decade has also brought a major change for the area's constitutional officers.
About seven years ago, the local court house was home to the clerk of courts, tax collector, property appraiser and supervisor of elections.
All, but the clerk, have moved to new offices. The supervisor of elections office, for instance, has now streamlined its operations from three locations to one on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Stuart. Before its move, its base was at the courthouse, while it housed election equipment at the B&A Flea Market, kept records at the old jail and had to use jury rooms or libraries to train poll workers.
"Everything is now under one roof," said Ms. Davis, who took office in January 2005.
The extra room at the courthouse did not necessarily mean officials there saw a spike in crime.
In fact, Martin County has remained relatively safe with a crime rate that has held steady, increasing less than 1 percent in the first half of 2011, according to the latest information from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which tracks murder, sexual offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft, among other crimes, in its annual statewide index.
Other statistics also paint a bright picture of life in the county.
The Business Development Board of Martin County shows the area has grown into a community where residents have a vested interested in their neighborhoods, with nearly 80 percent owning the homes in which they live.
About 60 percent of adults have at least some college education or a higher degree. And Martin County has emerged as one of the most prosperous in the state, targeting companies in science and other fields that offer high-paying jobs.
But residents, such as Palm City's Richard Wallace, said infrastructural changes, cultural shifts and economic developments have made for a decade of dramatic highs and lows.
"We're talking about a time when we went from excess to having nothing, to trying to get back on our feet again," said Mr. Wallace, a construction worker who lost his job and was out of work for three months.
His industry was perhaps hardest hit in the local economy, coming to a virtual standstill in Martin County. The number of building permits issued at the close of the last decade, compared to the beginning, dropped about 90 percent.
But Martin County managed to hold onto one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state at 8.1 percent as of last April, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The arts, too, saw dramatic ebbs and flows, and community theaters struggled to stay afloat.
After nearly 42 seasons, the Barn Theatre, the area's oldest community playhouse, was in dire straits with a crumbling roof, busted air conditioning and insufficient funds for its productions, said president Francine Beckstead.
Staging avant-garde productions and sold-out performances of "Biloxi Blues," "The Cemetery Club" and "The Boys Next Door" was not enough to keep the doors open.
A tough economy and waning attendance threatened the same fate for the Barn that Shiloh Theatrical Company suffered when that group was forced to permanently draw the curtains.
"We were doing some very edgy things but we knew we could only be successful if we could get butts in the seats," Ms. Beckstead said.
By the time Hometown News celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, the Barn will also toast its own survival in the county it has called home for more than four decades.