By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine
Jessi Blakley grew up on the waters of Fort Lauderdale, boating and water skiing and learning to sail not far from where she grew up in the neighborhood of Rio Vista. But things really got serious for her and the water when she was 10.
It was then that she tried competing for the first time as a water skier. Her family took her to a tournament on a lake in the town of Mulberry, Fla. It was a chaotic scene, she remembers, and nothing like the tennis competitions she was used to do.
“We must have looked like deer in headlights trying to find our way around,” she says. “And this family came up to give us a lay of the land.”
Among those who offered help was a boy named Joey, and right away, Blakley says: “It was puppy love.”
It remained just that for a decade, until Blakley was working for CNN in Atlanta during the second Gulf War. She was doing the overnight shift, watching and analyzing the reports to prepare a rundown for the network’s executives on what happened the night before. She reached out to that 10-year-old crush and found out he was headed to Atlanta for a layover. “And then he never left.”
They married and had two kids, settling in Orlando where Blakley now works for Tavistock Development Company as the senior director of strategic communications. She helped launch Lake Nona, a 17-square-mile planned community as intricate as a small city.
Fort Lauderdale became a place she would just come to see family until Tavistock announced a major acquisition. They would be redeveloping the iconic Pier 66 in her hometown, and they put Blakley in charge of selling the idea to the public.
That wouldn’t be an easy task. Since Tavistock purchased the 32-acre property in 2016, the city leadership has taken a decidedly anti-development bent, with scores of locals coming out to fight off projects on the beach and on the western border of Rio Vista.
Blakley now divides her time between Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, spending most of her days and nights here meeting with locals to convince them of Tavistock’s plans. She guesses she’s had a hundred-plus meetings so far, everything from living rooms to city commission meetings.
The plans call for an addition onto the midcentury Pier 66 tower that would extend it sideways, out into what’s now the pool area. By reconfiguring the rooms to be more upscale, the plans call for actually decreasing the hotel rooms from 384 to 354.
But what could lead to controversy, and what has brought Blakley back to town, are the buildings that would rise on the rest of the property. A dozen single-family homes would rise along the canal on the east side of the property. Mid-rise villas with 39 units would come up along the north. And on the west would be a pair of 10-story condo buildings, 38 units in each and 32,000 square feet of office and retail space. Overall, the new buildings look modern and also inspired by the Pier 66’s style, with that jagged crown encircling the top.
Blakley, who went to prom at the Pier 66 and had her 10-year reunion there, knows she has a task ahead selling the project. “If you grew up here, you have a story about the Pier 66.”
She sees her job as one that involves showing people that what’s planned will improve things. But she says she also believes in the project. “My grandparents and parents live nearby,” she says. “I’m not going to bring something to this community that we can’t get behind.”
For now, the first phase of the plans are pending with the city, and will perhaps go to a vote this summer. In addition to concerns about over-development, the project also faces complaints about 17th Street traffic. But for Blakley, who can see her old neighborhood from the property’s shoreline, she says it’s about selling a better Pier 66.
“This is an iconic property,” she says. “And we want it to stay that way.”