Don Cooper, credited with helping spur development of Port St. Lucie, dies at 69

Former longtime Port St. Lucie City Manager Don Cooper, credited with transforming an underdeveloped retirement community into Florida’s fastest growing city, died of natural causes Monday. He was 69.

A celebration of Cooper’s life was to be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., this Thursday, Oct. 17 in the Port St. Lucie Civic Center, Emerald Ballroom.

Mayor Greg Oravec, who Cooper hired to be the city’s community redevelopment director in 2002, emotionally recounted Cooper’s accomplishments during more than two decades leading Port St. Lucie.

“I can’t think of any one person more responsible for our city’s success story than our longtime city manager, Don Cooper,” Oravec said to start Monday’s council meeting. “We can see Mr. Cooper’s legacy and his love for Port St. Lucie everywhere we look.”

The construction of Crosstown Parkway, annexation of 40 square miles from St. Lucie County, development of Tradition economic development projects, and installation of water and sewer utilities citywide were among Cooper’s primary achievements.

During an emotional five-minute speech, Oravec described Cooper as “deliberate, intelligent, principled, simultaneously strategic and tactical and much more.”

“You might say he was a force of nature,” Oravec said. “He worked with many city councils, his growing staff and our growing community to take our city out of the shadow of being a General Development Corp. company town and into the light of being a real city.”

Cooper came to Port St. Lucie in July 1989 to serve as assistant city manager after working in local governments in Colorado for 13 years.

He was promoted to city manager in December 1990, powered by glowing reviews from his predecessor, Wayne Allgire.

Cooper teamed with the late Mayor Bob Minsky and former state Senate President Ken Pruitt (R-Port St. Lucie) in the early 2000s to establish the Tradition jobs corridor and attract several high-tech business ventures.

“No doubt the challenges of bringing business to Port St. Lucie seems daunting,” Pruitt said in letter to Cooper. “The foundation you are laying will serve future generations well.”

While the Digital Domain animation studio failed, the former Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute Florida laboratory is being taken over by Cleveland Clinic Florida and the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies is joining forces with Florida International University.

Another economic development project under Cooper’s administration, the City Center on U.S. 1 and Walton Road, remains in limbo in federal court after the previous owner was charged with securities fraud.

Cooper also had contentious relations with some council members and city residents. Cooper was “thin-skinned when he or his staff is criticized,” said then City Councilman Ron Bowen in his 1994 performance review. He advised Cooper to start “not taking things too personal.”

The low point for Cooper came in 2003 when he pleaded no contest to a domestic battery charge, which was dismissed after he completed a domestic violence prevention program, according to published reports.

City Councilwoman Michelle Berger disciplined Cooper in September 2008 for responding to a citizen “using profane and disrespectful language during a City Council meeting.”

Cooper resigned from the Port St. Lucie city manager job effective Jan. 8, 2010.

“He always fought for the city,” said City Councilman John Carvelli, who knew Cooper from his 16 years on the county school board. “He was a forward thinker and wanted to do what was best for the city.”

Cooper next took a top job with Culpepper & Terpening, a Fort Pierce engineering firm that has historically been deeply involved in city business.

Cooper resigned as CEO of Culpepper & Terpening in April 2011 after City Council members objected to the firm’s request for more money for the redesign of the Ravenswood Community Center project.

Cooper went to work as Delray Beach city manager in November 2014 and resigned effective January 2016, citing “family medical demands.”

Cooper is survived by his wife Linda and daughters Kimberly and Ginny, grandchildren and a sister.

“Mr. Cooper was very special to many people here at City Hall and across our community,” Oravec said.

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