Can Neal Wade generate jobs for northwest Florida -- and drive up the value of St. Joe's property?
By Julie S. Bettinger
Hailed as the man who remade Alabama's economic image, Neal Wade has become St. Joe Co.'s top draft pick in its effort to draw more businesses to northwest Florida -- and drive up the value of the company's commercial and residential properties in the process.
In nine years as president and CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, a private, non-profit alliance of Alabama's top employers, Wade's Rolodex and spin-doctor skills were part of an economic recruitment effort that created 15,000 jobs and brought 40 companies to the state, including Mercedes-Benz, Boeing and, more recently, Honda. "All were in the top 10 in the world in terms of major projects in their respective years," says Steve Sewell, director of marketing for the Alabama partnership.
Burdened with a backward reputation 10 years ago, Alabama just made the top 10 "hot spots" for relocating and expanding industries, according to Plants Sites & Parks magazine. Sewell says Wade deserves much of the credit.
St. Joe, which recently named Wade its vice president of economic development, is counting on him to build northwest Florida in much the same fashion. The region has been slow to experience the heated growth other areas have.
The company, with more than 1 million acres in the Panhandle -- including 40 miles of coastline and 800 acres of timberland -- has a lot to gain if Wade succeeds. St. Joe has already received permits for the 499-acre WaterColor development in Walton County, and for the 3,186-acre Southwood master planned community in Tallahassee. The company also is moving ahead on at least three other residential/resort communities in Walton County and three projects in Bay.
St. Joe expects Wade to create economic development alliances and partnerships that encompass broad areas of northwest Florida. "We're trying to brand this area of Florida -- taking a name and positioning it in the minds of decision-makers," Wade says.
Wade is working on laying the groundwork, collecting marketing and demographic data. He expects to begin delivering results -- new jobs -- as early as 2001.
Aside from the lack of monster state incentive packages that helped Alabama -- valued at $253 million -- Wade's biggest challenge is likely to be the area's parochialism. Some in Pensacola wonder if that community will get short shrift since St. Joe owns no land west of Fort Walton Beach.
"You have the rural communities saying, 'What's in it for me?' rather than understanding that what's happening next door will have a compounding effect on them," says Joe Kelley, former president of Tallahassee's Economic Development Commission and Chamber of Commerce.
In the News
Bay County -- In a Manpower poll, 24% of local businesses said they expected to increase their payrolls between July and September, while 74% said they expected employment to remain steady. Three percent of employers were uncertain about the future. The third quarter is traditionally one of the most active hiring periods in the year for Bay County.
Delwood Beach -- Plans to build a 405-foot dock over the St. Andrew Bay were scrapped when the Delwood Beach residents and the Girl Scout Council of the Apalachee Bend protested. Already approved by the Department of Environmental Protection, the project included a 12-by-24 boatlift and three smaller access piers. Camp Eleanor is next to the proposed site, and scout leaders feared it would bring additional boat traffic to the area, impinging on camp activities.
Escambia County -- Commercial construction permitting was up 58% in the first quarter compared to a year ago. Retailers, especially in the lucrative business-to-business sector, are demonstrating their confidence by expanding. At Total Business, an office products printing and advertising specialty company, sales were up 26% for the fiscal year ended in March. After 25 years in business, it is investing $600,000 in a new building.
Milton -- TRX, a customer service business for Internet-based airline reservations, announced plans to move into the 80,000-sq.-ft. former Vanity Fair building, now owned by the city of Milton. The company, which employs 200, is planning $8.5 million in improvements and expects to hire another 400 to 500 employees by the fall.
Monticello -- Conway Southeast Trucking Co. is building in the county-owned industrial park just northwest of the Jefferson County jail. Based in Texas, Conway has a regional office in nearby Lloyd and intended to move out of the area before the county stepped forward with incentives, including extending the paved road, sewer and water to the site. The company employs 26 locally and has an annual payroll of $1.5 million.
After more than a year of promising construction, Map-Crete Concrete Products has poured its foundation. The concrete fencing and wall manufacturing company is expected to employ between 20 and 25. Map-Crete received favorable terms for leasing from the county -- $1 a year for five years, with the option to purchase the land for $15,000.
Panhandle -- Opportunity Florida, the Northwest's rural economic development initiative, held its first organizational meeting at the beginning of the summer. Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Gadsden, says the group has appointed a board, elected officers and is searching for an executive director and office space. It projects a first year budget of $250,000.
Pensacola -- Options in long-term care took a hit recently when SunPointe Senior Living Center in Pensacola announced it would close July 31. The 120-bed facility is looking for a buyer. Overlooking Bayou Chico, the 18-year-old building owned by Nationwide Health Properties is considered a highly desirable waterfront property. SunPointe was one of the few low-cost assisted-living centers in the area.
Tallahassee -- Now that it has a school, Arvida plans to break ground on its massive Southwood community in mid-July. Legislators approved moving Florida High School to the 3,186-acre Leon County master planned community. Plans for Southwood include about 4,770 homes, 3 million square feet of office and business space, a 250-acre industrial park, golf course and town center.
Skandia Industries recently added 50,000 square feet of space to its 33,000-sq.-ft. building to keep up with the orders for its shutter and shade-manufacturing business.
Forbes magazine ranked Tallahassee in the top 20% of its "Best Places" for businesses. In another ranking, FSU was picked 18th "Most Wired" by Yahoo! Internet Life. That's a big jump from last year's 44th position. FSU is 12th among all public universities.