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Panhandle, make way for St. Joe Co.'s Great Northwest

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 2001


Buzzing north on I-75, then west on I-10 last week, I thought for sure I was heading for the Florida Panhandle.

Instead, just past Tallahassee, I entered a new country.

St. Joe Country.

Didn't need a passport. But here's a tip for those planning to live near the coast in the territory-formerly-known-as-the-Panhandle: Be prepared to write a big check to St. Joe Co., Florida's largest private land owner.

If you have not driven the Panhandle's coastal route 98 lately from Pensacola east to Apalachicola, you're missing one of the biggest economic development booms and beach community transformations under way in modern Florida history.

What many folks long derided as the state's Redneck Riviera is rapidly becoming the South's Chez Yuppie on the gulf. A surprisingly upscale -- and increasingly crowded -- binge of snazzy housing, resort and golf course developments is under way.

St. Joe Co. is the driving force. The former St. Joe Paper Co. ditched its stinky paper mills and unrelated businesses in the 1990s and shortened its name. But St. Joe kept close to 1-million acres, with 908,515 of those on the Panhandle. They include major untouched tracts on or near the gulf coast.

Now St. Joe, through its Arvida residential building subsidiary, is the Panhandle's real estate juggernaut. The Jacksonville company is spending heavily to create resort and housing projects that are big on coastal atmosphere (indigenous plants in landscaping) and Southern coastal architecture (painted homes with metal roofs, cupolas, gazebos, front porches and picket fences) all in a planned and controlled community.

To speed the arrival and assure the quality of the Panhandle infrastructure needed to support all this development, St. Joe is leveraging its vast local land holdings.

To make the Panhandle more accessible to more people, St. Joe handed over 4,000 of its acres northwest of Panama City for a new and larger airport.

To help manage the sharp increases in traffic on route 98, St. Joe provided land to broaden the coastal, east-west road from two to four lanes. And St. Joe gave land to build a state-of-the-art, 50-bed hospital near one of the company's premier properties.

To upgrade the Panhandle's aging commercial property base, St. Joe has multiple projects in the works. Among them: Pier Park at Panama City Beach, which will be an upscale community center incorporating a 2,500-seat Grand Ole Opry Theater, retail shops and dining.

One Big Sugar Daddy company. Big regional clout. Got to admire the simplicity of it.

No single company has exercised that kind of single vision and clout in one region of Florida since Disney arrived in the Orlando area in the late 1960s.

The rest is history.

Among St. Joe's many current Panhandle developments, WaterColor is closest to the company's heart and wallet.

I first visited the proposed site of WaterColor east of Destin in south Walton County in 1999. At the time, all St. Joe could show off were lots of pretty drawings and a few rough roads carved into the pine forests.

Back for a fresh look last week, much has changed. The 499-acre project, adjacent to the beachside community of Seaside, has dozens of buildings under construction or completed. Some homes are furnished and in use. A beachfront, 60-room hotel, a beach club, individual homes, a boat house and a restaurant are to be finished by summer or early next year.

Phases 2 and 3 of WaterColor will begin in the next few years. Total homes planned: 1,140. Home prices start in the mid-$300,000s but escalate rapidly to seven figures.

Got to admire much of St. Joe's planning. The company is run by former Walt Disney real estate development people influenced by nearby Seaside and by Disney's Celebration, the town it designed in the 1990s southwest of Orlando.

On Tuesday at WaterColor, construction was everywhere. The sales office was busy with calls and visits by fiftysomething couples decked out in weekend Polo wear. Trucks from interior design companies delivered furnishings to homes of some early buyers.

Sales and marketing employees scurried about laden with sales brochures and materials describing WaterColor's "new urbanism" design (dense housing, community focus on walking, less car dependency), tales of its full-time horticulturist, its embrace of Southern culture. Even the project's color scheme spoke volumes (that's not red, that's "crimson rose").

Imagine Martha Stewart on atmospheric steroids.

St. Joe advertises WaterColor in warm and fuzzy real estate ads in the Wall Street Journal ("natural beauty and laid-back living"), as well as Southern Living and Coastal Living magazines.

In 2000, St. Joe sold 66 lots and nine multifamily units at WaterColor for a total of $36.9-million. The average price of a lot sold: $335,000. And the average price for a multifamily unit: $402,000.

That was then. Now that the stock market is weaker and consumer confidence tanking, can WaterColor keep selling such high-price scenery?

So far, St. Joe insists buyers are bullish. Mortgage rates are low, which keeps real estate purchases attractive. Besides, WaterColor spokeswoman Karen Terrell says, potential buyers stiffed by the stock markets like the notion of leaning toward real estate as a safer investment.

Most buyers come from Southern cities: Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Dallas; New Orleans; and, most of all, Atlanta.

WaterColor is scheduled to be completed over the next eight years. But if that high-end project's not your cup of tea, not to worry. St. Joe's got plenty more Panhandle developments in the works. The Retreat. Camp Creek. WaterSound. The company's slowly moving east along the coast, toward future developments at the Panhandle's Mexico Beach, St. Joe Beach and beyond.

For all its marketing firepower, St. Joe has one daunting sales challenge ahead:

Killing off the word "Panhandle." And replacing it with "Florida's Great Northwest."

Don't laugh. It sure beats the Panhandle's old nickname: "Florida's Forgotten Coast."

"We don't say "Panhandle' anymore," St. Joe corporate spokesman Jerry Ray says.

Last fall, a group called Florida's Great Northwest Inc. was formed to market the Panhandle under its new name as a home to business. The pro-regional organization, which combines eight Panhandle economic development councils under one marketing and research umbrella, is similar in concept to the Tampa Bay Partnership.

Given St. Joe's singular clout, the company and Florida's Great Northwest Inc. are closely intertwined.

Florida's Great Northwest's chairman, Neal Wade, also happens to be St. Joe's recently hired vice president of economic development. As the former president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, Wade helped that state snare new Boeing, Honda and Mercedes-Benz plants.

Now the Panhandle group wants to recruit businesses for Tallahassee's growing high-tech industry and for the region's wealth of military bases. Even the new Web site for Florida's Great Northwest suggests a fresh start: www.brandnewflorida.com.

Can St. Joe pull off an economic renaissance for the Panhandle and also boost its standing on Wall Street?

When the St. Petersburg Times last wrote about St. Joe in 1999, its market capitalization (stock price multiplied by shares outstanding) had slipped from $3-billion to $2-billion. Late Friday, its market cap was $1.8-billion.

St. Joe says it's just a matter of time until big revenues kick in from all its developments. And there's no question, the Panhandle is abuzz with talk from all the economic activity by the company.

"Michael Jordan is buying a place in south Walton County because of the number of golf courses St. Joe plans to build," U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Republican from Pensacola, told his local newspaper this month. Could just be a rumor, he added.

"But I'll tell you what the historians will say 100 years from now," Scarborough said. "They'll say that St. Joe finally put northwest Florida on Florida's map."

At St. Joe's pace, that might happen a lot sooner.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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