The county considers St. Joe's offer to move a highway a win-win deal.
By Julie S. Bettinger
Getting around in Gulf County isn't easy: East-west travelers are limited to U.S. Highway 98, and two deteriorating state roads are residents' only north-south options. Mega-developer St. Joe Co., whose largest concentration of land, 234,442 acres, is in Gulf County, has struck a deal that would improve the county's roads -- along with its own development prospects at a Gulf-front project called WindMark Beach.
St. Joe's proposal involves moving Highway 98, which runs along the coast, about half a mile inland, allowing the road to be widened. The company would help pay for the cost of the move and says it will donate land for a parkway to be built from the new U.S. 98 to Bay County's four-laned U.S. 231.
The roadwork offer isn't altruistic, however: Moving Highway 98 would allow St. Joe/Arvida to build a boardwalk and a park on about 31¼2 miles of beach at the front door of WindMark Beach, a 1,500-home project that's St. Joe's first large development in the county.
While St. Joe stands to benefit from the move, Richard Williams, executive director of the Opportunity Florida economic development organization, says the deal is win-win: Road improvements -- often put off for more pressing needs and a lack of money -- are long overdue. Accidents close Highway 98 too often, and in major storms emergency workers can't get to a crash scene quickly.
Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Marianna, also touts the economic benefits: "You can try to attract business, but if they don't have a way of moving their goods, they're not going to come."
Gulf County residents seem to like the idea. More than 400 residents attended a recent public hearing; 38 of the 45 who spoke were in favor of the plan.
But Wayne Childers, a St. Joe Beach property owner and native of Gulf County, says he would still like to see St. Joe's commitment on the public access boardwalk better described.
"The alternative route is going to have to come sooner or later," he says. "The big problem I have is simply that you're giving $160-million worth of property to a company -- and what are you getting in return?"
In the News
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Destin -- A recent survey of visitors to Destin indicated the average traveler is married, stays seven nights and has a gross income of $25,000 to $40,000. The most common states of origination were Tennessee and Illinois.
Gulf Breeze -- The 150-employee Listener Group Inc. is planning to move to new facilities, double the space and add 100 jobs by early 2003. The company's telephone-based market research and customer contact service business has grown 30% in the past two years.
Panama City Beach -- Pier Park, the public/private venture between the St. Joe Co. (NYSE-JOE) and Panama City Beach, broke ground this spring and is expected to add another 500 jobs to the area. Plans call for revitalizing the city's pier district, expanding area parks to accommodate special events and adding more than 1 million square feet of retail space, plus restaurants and entertainment businesses.
Forecasts for spring break were rosy as hoteliers reported a near-zero vacancy rate based on advanced reservations. Tourism officials speculated that a reluctance to fly following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks might be keeping students closer to home. The Panama City Convention & Visitors Bureau boosted its marketing spending by 30% to increase bookings.
Panhandle -- The state has approved Enterprise Zones for four counties in northwest Florida. Calhoun, Okaloosa, Gadsden and Madison counties will use the zones to create jobs by offering businesses job tax credits, sales tax refunds on purchases and building materials, and tax exemptions on electricity costs.
Perry -- Five years after it was proposed, a controversial pipeline designed to discard waste from the Buckeye Florida pulp mill into the Gulf has been put on hold. State and federal environmental officials and groups, along with the company, agreed to study other alternatives so the polluted Fenholloway River, where wastewater is now dumped, can be cleaned up.
Sandestin -- Workforce officials have cited a worker shortage as the No. 1 concern of local employers. Explosive growth of the hospitality and service industries, low wages and seasonal swings in business are contributing to high employee turnover. More growth is expected; state labor analysts expect 23,439 new jobs will be created in the next six years, with the service sector accounting for nearly 40%.
Tallahassee -- The city is having to make good on its promise to its new discount air carrier, AirTran Airways, to offset losses of up to $1.5 million. The company announced a revenue shortfall of about $2.4 million from Nov. 15 through Jan. 31. City officials say the shortfall was expected because of a drop in air service nationally since Sept. 11.
Healthplan Southeast HMO will move to the Summit East high-tech business park to take advantage of the park's "smart park" technology and perks of the campus-like setting, including concierge services for employees. HPSE, which employs 155 and occupies 24,000 square feet, will have the option of expanding by more than 50% in the new building.
Two of Tallahassee's largest law firms are losing major players who are leaving to start their own firms. Holland & Knight's Steve Uhlfelder, a Florida State University trustee and two-term member of the Board of Regents, left to go out on his own. Don Hinkle, founding partner of Fonville, Hinkle & Lewis, labeled his own departure a "spinoff" and says he plans to focus on catastrophic injury and malpractice cases in a new six-attorney firm, Hinkle & Foran.
PANHANDLE -- As Tallahassee Community College was announcing its fifth president in March, Pensacola Junior College began searching for a new leader. William D. Law Jr., founding president of Montgomery College in Conroe, Texas, will take over leadership of TCC. PJC's president, Charles Atwell, announced his retirement in February. PJC joins Florida A&M in searching for a new president. The former president of TCC, T.K. Wetherell, is now a business consultant. Frederick Humphries took a sabbatical from FAMU late last year.