Encouraged by St. Joe's activities, developers from around the Southeast see the Panhandle as the next big thing, the last "undeveloped, virgin, coastal property" in the state, says Donald F. Nations, a commercial real estate broker in Panama City. "My phone rings off the hook," he says. "The old Panhandle is ready to make that transition into the new." The fact that St. Joe owns more than 800,000 acres is not a deterrent, Nations says, but an incentive.
Bob Latimer with Bay Side Development Co., Knoxville, Tenn., agrees: "I'm trying to get whatever I can that's near their property, so long as it's not wetlands," Latimer says. He recently bought more than 25 acres along a thoroughfare in Panama City Beach and plans several commercial developments, including hotels, restaurants and office space. Just down the road, St. Joe has unveiled plans for Pier Park, 125,000 square feet along the Gulf of Mexico with retail shops, restaurants, entertainment and a hotel.
Near Tallahassee, St. Joe is breaking ground on its Southwood development. When complete, says Tim Edmonds, president of St. Joe/Arvida's Capitol Region, the master-planned community will have more than 4,700 homes as well as an industrial park, office park, schools and shops. Over the next 10 to 20 years, St. Joe proposes to build more than 10,000 homes in Bay, Walton and Gulf counties.
Rival companies, particularly retail and office developers, can't ignore those kinds of numbers, says Larry Pantlin, director of development for Atlanta-based TrammellCrow Development Co., which opened its first northwest Florida office in Panama City this year. "We make no bones about the fact that as retail developers, we have to be students of where the rooftops are going," Pantlin says.
Birmingham, Ala., developer Steve Wilson is more blunt. "We've watched St. Joe, we know they're sticklers for detail. How can I not follow their lead?
It's easy to get over-exuberant, says Neil Jones, vice president of Seltzer Management Group in Panama City Beach. But just because St. Joe is building and others are following, he says, there's no guarantee office and retail space will lease: "The only thing that spurs retail growth is a population with disposable income," he says.
In the news ...
Apalachicola - More than a year after it was proposed, the Scipio Creek Marina finally opened. The largest metal building in Franklin County, the marina has 140 slips.
Crestview - Florida Rain Gutters Inc. was slapped with a $5,100 fine by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for four violations after a worker fell 25-feet to his death while on the job in 1998.
Jackson County - Peanut grower Sorrells Pickard reached a deal with California entrepreneur Herb Dow to use his peanut butter in a new line of gourmet foods. Pickard's peanut butter will be sold through QVC.
Okaloosa County - A doubling of the county's 2% bed tax will finance a convention center on Okaloosa Island. County commissioners and the Fort Walton Beach business community pushed for the new 4% rate.
Panama City - Arizona Chemical will relocate its headquarters to Jacksonville following the merger of its parent company, International Paper, with Union Camp Corp. Arizona will keep its name and continue to operate a Panama City plant that employs about 150. But Arizona's headquarters staff of 70 are not guaranteed jobs following the move to Jacksonville, where Union Camp has a chemical division and duplication of duties will eliminate some positions.
Panama City Beach - The U.S. Navy founded the Coastal Operations Institute to work with Florida State University, Tyndall Air Force Base and private companies to develop military applications with a clear commercial potential. The first project is a free-floating port facility. The institute, located at the Navy's Coastal Systems Station, has 15 workers now but expects to employ nearly 300 by 2001.
Pensacola - SunTrust Bank, Tallahassee was folded into SunTrust Bank, West Florida, without job losses or disruption in service. The new SunTrust Bank, West Florida remains based in Pensacola.
Tallahassee - Capital City Bank Group (Nasdaq-CCBG) acquired Cairo, Ga.-based First National Bank of Grady. Capital City, with assets of $1.3 billion, has 44 branches in Florida.
Syn-Tech, a manufacturer of fuel pumps, landed a $27 million contract with the Air Force that will create 20 new jobs and more than triple production.
Pensacola's city manager, Tom Bonfield, is reworking city government to create a road map for economic and community development. His first major initiative added three assistant city managers, responsible for everything from economic development and transportation issues - including Port Pensacola and the regional airport - to community development. Not everyone is happy with the plans. Critics say the planning was something the Chamber of Commerce should have handled. ... ... Talk in South Walton of secession from the rest of the county has scaled back to a call for greater autonomy. The issue, which has simmered for two years, could be decided in a special election this year. ... ... While the number of visitors to Panama City Beach dropped last year, tourism leaders in neighboring Mexico Beach report almost a 20% increase. The reason? J. Patrick Howard, head of the local community development council, cites the town's small size and, relative to Panama City Beach, small number of beachfront properties blocking the view of the Gulf. ... ... Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, named last year one of the best places in the U.S. to get an education, faces accusations of mismanagement in its financial aid office. ... ... Hundreds of Gulf County residents oppose a plan that would let U.S. Navy divers and commandoes train along the winding, pristine Apalachicola River. County leaders mostly support the proposal, arguing it could lead to an expanded Navy presence that would help the local economy.