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Gulf oil spill threatening St. Joe's big bet on Panhandle

St. Joe Co. has a lot to lose from the gulf oil spill.

Once Florida's largest private land owner (now No. 2), St. Joe bet big on the Florida Panhandle, transforming its dense land holdings there to remake what was long dubbed the Redneck Riviera into yuppie enclaves of Southern-style, new urban communities, vacation homes and beachfront developments.

All of that could come to a screeching halt if the oil gushing from BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling site starts to coat St. Joe's 130 miles of frontage along the Gulf of Mexico.

St. Joe not only has huge beachfront and inland assets from Destin east to Port St. Joe and points beyond. The company is just a few weeks away from a May 23 opening of the long-awaited, St. Joe-subsidized Northwest Florida International Beaches Airport just north of Panama City.

The airport replaces an aging regional facility and, per St. Joe's long-term vision, suddenly opens the Panhandle to direct flights and jet service from such major U.S. metro markets as Baltimore-Washington and Houston. St. Joe even lured Southwest Airlines to provide jet service at the airport by offering subsidies should the volume of air traffic prove unprofitable.

St. Joe CEO Britt Greene calls the airport "a major catalyst for this region" — not to mention a big value multiplier for St. Joe's extensive land holdings nearby.

The company's final symbol of commitment to the Panhandle is its plan to relocate its headquarters by 2011 from Jacksonville to St. Joe's new commercial property called VentureCrossings that will rise adjacent to the new Panhandle airport. In other words, St. Joe is going hook, line, sinker and HQ for a future in the Panhandle.

That commitment could be in environmental and economic jeopardy.

Greene this week outlined specific steps St. Joe will take to prepare for the gulf oil spill reaching its coastal properties.

In addition to retaining a "disaster response" consultant, the company will:

• Hire aerial photography and engineering firms to photograph St. Joe properties and collect and test soil samples before any oil arrives. The point: to empower St. Joe with extensive documentation if it needs to make any claims.

• Lower the water levels of St. Joe-owned lakes with outlets to the beaches, and place sand berms at outfalls isolating the lakes from the gulf.

• Retain the Shaw Group, a Fortune 500 company with environmental expertise, to help finalize preparations, track the oil spill, help in the management of oil spill contractors, and document any damage.

You can bet St. Joe will send a bill to BP for these added costs, plus any extra cancellations by tourists planning to stay in company properties.

Greene, asked if the gulf oil spill was a 21st century version of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, cited some big differences. This spill is offshore on the gulf's bottom, while the Exxon spill came from a ship in a bay. This spill is being diluted by gulf water while the Exxon spill hit Alaska's shoreline with little dilution. Beyond that, he said, we don't know enough yet.

"Everybody needs to remember this well is still spewing oil 5,000 feet below until they get it capped off," Greene said. All that can be done is prepare to minimize the damage.

And bill BP.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Gulf oil spill threatening St. Joe's big bet on Panhandle 05/05/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 12:41am]

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