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Taking Flight

Momentum appears to be building for development of a new regional airport in the Panhandle.

The St. Joe Co., looking to boost development of its massive holdings in the Panhandle, will donate the land for a new regional airport if local officials want to build one. The Panama City-Bay County International Airport was remodeled only three years ago, leaving $20 million in outstanding bond debt. But airport officials say the facility won't be big enough to handle the increasing number of flights and passengers expected over the next 10 years. Airport board members also say the main runway is too short to accommodate large passenger jets such as Boeing 757s; a consortium of environmental and neighborhood groups successfully fought part of the expansion that would have lengthened the main runway by 2,200 feet into a bayou.

A major obstacle to a new airport has been the lack of available land in Bay County, 46% of which is owned by Jacksonville-based St. Joe. But recently, St. Joe has indicated it would be willing to give up some property for a new airport, according to Chris Corr, vice president of strategy for Arvida/St. Joe West Florida. Don Crisp, chairman of the airport authority, calls it "a sweetheart deal" that also would benefit St. Joe, which is considering a resort project in Walton County and planning one in Panama City Beach. "We want to see increased air traffic to Bay County," says Corr. "It's important to our growth and the county's."

It'll take about a year and $20,000 to do airport feasibility studies and have them approved. The proposed site is near the junction of State Highways 79 and 77, in a sparsely populated part of western Bay County -- the only place the airport could go without intruding on the restricted airspace of Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County and Tyndall Air Force Base in Bay County. Also favoring that site is a plan to make Highway 79 four lanes within five years. "We can build the last major regional airport in Florida," Crisp says.

It could open in 2005 and could boast two runways, one more than 10,000 feet long. The average cost for a new airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, is about $120 million, including the cost of property. But airport director Randy Curtis notes that St. Joe is willing to donate the land and no local tax money would be used to build the facility. Instead, he says, the airport would pursue state and federal grants. "This is definitely real, and it can definitely happen," Curtis says.

...in the news

Altha -- Oglesby Plants International, known for its cross-breeding of brilliantly colored flowers, is expanding its greenhouse and nursery to clone more flowers for use in commercial and science industries.

Bay County-- Jacksonville's St. Joe Co. (NYSE-JOE) plans to build more than 1,500 new homes in the next four years in Lynn Haven, Cedar Grove, Panama City Beach and Callaway. St. Joe/Arvida West Florida will begin construction later this year.

Fort Walton Beach -- Edwin Watts Golf Shops, which operates 46 stores in 10 states, acquired six Pro Golf Discount stores in Atlanta. The deal is the largest in the company's 30-year history and its first in Georgia.

Marianna -- Mowrey Elevator Co. relocated from its long-time home in Blountstown to the LeHigh Furniture Building in Marianna. Mowrey designs and manufactures elevators.

Okaloosa County -- Boeing officials say the Special Operations Forces Aerospace Support Center in Fort Walton Beach will handle the bulk of a 10-year, $1.2 billion U.S. Air Force contract to provide engineering, logistics support and systems modifications on 87 C-130 aircraft.

Panama City Beach -- Consulting firm PBS&J is opening an office here to handle projects for St. Joe/Arvida, the Florida Department of Transportation and Okaloosa County. PBS&J specializes in transportation and land use planning and development and environmental engineering. It has 60 offices across the U.S., 22 in Florida.

Marriott subsidiary Vacation Club International, based in Orlando, will build a 120-unit timeshare next to the Bay Point Resort. Construction is slated for later this year with occupancy by March 2001.

Pensacola -- Steve Dunlap plans to open G&L Bank, the nation's first catering to gays and lesbians. The bank, which awaits federal approval, will operate primarily on the Internet.

Developers Dan Gilmore and Vince Whibbs Jr. are planning a 149-house subdivision on Tarklin Bayou. The Nature Conservancy has offered $260,000 for the land in an effort to save rare insect-eating pitcher plants, but the asking price is $500,000. The parcel is part of 7,000 acres the state wants to purchase for the Perdido Pitcher Plant Prairie through its Preservation 2000 land-buying program.

Port St. Joe -- Florida Coast Paper Co., a joint venture between Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. and Box USA, laid off almost all of its remaining 85 mill workers. Nearly 550 have been out of work since August. Smurfit-Stone Container is shedding unproductive mills, selling some and closing others. Its mill in Panama City continues to operate and employs more than 600 workers.

Shalimar -- Spaceport Florida Authority selected Tybrin Corp. to provide assistance and analysis for safety issues related to launch vehicle systems and other spaceport programs. It's the first major space-related contract for the company.

Tallahassee -- A new arts festival, "Tallahassee: Seven Days of Opening Nights," premiers February 19 to 27; organizers envision an annual event that will become an economic draw for north Florida. Backers include Florida State University, the city of Tallahassee and the chamber of commerce.

Computer companies Lockheed Martin IMS and Maximus Inc. will end their contracts with the state to collect child support payments from deadbeat dads. Each received $2.2 million in taxpayer dollars and together collected just $162,000. Officials from each company say it was not profitable work.

A new call center is bringing about 250 jobs paying $7 to $12 an hour, plus commission. It's the first Florida center for West Teleservices Corp. of Omaha, which takes customer service calls, catalog orders and surveys and has 13,000 employees in 10 states.