Around the State
An influx of Georgians is creating a boom in upscale home construction, but what about the locals?
Panhandle residents like to say they live in the "real Florida." But more and more, their neighbors have roots in Georgia. "I've always believed that Panama City Beach should be called 'Atlanta Beach,'" says Yonnie Patronis, who, along with three brothers, his father and uncle, runs Captain Anderson's Restaurant. "The bulk of our business is from Atlanta; without it, we would have half the volume." (See "Clientele Profile," pg. 44.)
Residents of Greater Atlanta have visited the Panhandle coast for years. Now, they're staying: Atlantans are building and buying homes here like never before. Other resort areas within driving distance of Atlanta, such as Hilton Head Island, S.C., and Jekyll Island, Ga., have been broadly developed and are increasingly expensive. The Panhandle coast is relatively undeveloped, and housing prices seem like a bargain.
Atlantans "are looking at it like getting in on the ground floor," says Bill Yergens, director of marketing and sales at Carillon Beach, an upscale planned community on the eastern tip of Panama City Beach with 115 homes built and 304 lots priced from $375,000 to $2 million. Atlanta is the development's No. 1 source, Yergens says, followed by Birmingham, Ala.
The good news for coastal counties in the Panhandle, and for area homebuilders, is this: The influx of Georgians is helping to energize the local home-building business and generate construction jobs. Most of the home construction is high-end. Dale Piergiovanni, a builder in the region since 1985, builds homes that cost $200,000 and up. He says wealthy Georgians are flooding the area, including St. George Island off Franklin County, attracted by cheap and plentiful land with picturesque views. Similarly, St. Joe Co. is building new residential communities in Walton and Bay counties with homes starting at $170,000.
However, the trend toward more expensive new houses has some in the area concerned about the availability of low-cost, affordable housing for the people who have lived along the Emerald Coast for years -- and the overall effect on housing and land prices. The average annual salary ranges from just $20,000 in Franklin County to $23,500 in Walton. The average sale prices for existing single-family homes in northwest Florida, according to Metro Market Trends of Pensacola, run between $92,000 and $110,000 -- about half that of new houses coming to market.
Those who already own property "should continue to see an increase in value," says Jay Rish of Port St. Joe-based Thompson-Rish Realty. But he adds that those who can't afford to buy now will have to pay more -- or may never be able to.
In the News
Destin -- An increase in traffic and construction on State Highway 98 prompted city council members to approve a moratorium on development along the highway, the city's primary commercial corridor.
Developer Delys Dearmon got the OK to build 11 three-story condos on the city's last large tract of undeveloped land along Destin Harbor. The nine-acre parcel will include 126 residential and rental units, a 60-slip marina (pending approval from the state) and possibly a restaurant and boat shop.
Gulf County -- Nekton Diving Cruises Inc. of Fort Lauderdale will open a shipbuilding facility alongside the White City Canal and employ 61. The company plans to build double-hulled ships for chartered diving excursions. Nearly $700,000 in state money will help pave a road to the facility and develop infrastructure.
Jackson County -- Claude Weaver is suing the county over its 6% tax on utilities' gross revenues. Weaver contends the money is from customers -- and not the utility's. He says a state Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar tax in Alachua County ought to apply in Jackson.
Panama City -- Berg Steel Pipe Corp. cut another 43 jobs, citing setbacks in the oil and gas industry. Nearly a third of its 305-person workforce has been laid off since May. The company planned to shut down its plant the last two weeks of August and resume production after Labor Day. Layoffs also are expected at EB Pipe Coating Inc., where Berg is a partner.
Pensacola -- Former Florida House Speaker Bo Johnson and his wife, Judi, a former tax analyst for the state, were found guilty in federal court of not reporting to the IRS more than $500,000 in fees received from 16 different firms between 1992 and 1996. Johnson was sentenced to two years in prison; his wife to 15 months.
Gulf Power Co., an electric utility with 350,000 customers in 10 Panhandle counties, may be too profitable. The Public Service Commission will decide in January if a rate reduction is in order. The PSC restricts utility profits to between 11% and 13% of sales. Gulf Power says it expects its profit margin to be 12.85%.
Port St. Joe -- The 199-slip, $3.2-million city marina opened, and city and business leaders say the facility -- leased by the St. Joe Co. and managed by Sarasota-based Brandy Marine Inc. -- should spur economic development. Local grocery store owner George Duren pledged to build a 60,000-sq.-ft. shopping center, the first in Gulf County, adjacent to the new marina. Construction is scheduled for later this year.
Quincy -- Quincy Farms, which grows and packages mushrooms, agreed to let United Farm Workers represent its workers, ending a three-year struggle between the union and company. The 18-month agreement covers 430 workers and provides a 50-cent increase in hourly wages, to $5.75.
Tallahassee -- Branch offices of the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties have transferred or eliminated nearly 80 jobs because the strong job market and dwindling labor pool have reduced the need for services.
St. Joe Co.'s plans, announced earlier this year, to unload 800,000 acres of timberland seemed like a good idea -- until the paper industry went south. St. Joe has sold just 13,300 acres in Liberty and Franklin counties to the state of Florida for $9.9 million. Chairman and CEO Peter Rummell says the program is being put on hold pending a review. "Market conditions have weakened since we initiated the timberland auction process, largely due to mill closures, low pulp prices and competition from 3 million acres of timberlands offered for sale across the region," he says. "St. Joe can and will be a disciplined seller in this highly cyclical market."