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Sansom's key friend avoids spotlight

DESTIN — Scenic Highway 98 clings to the beach for a while, a straight-shot, two-lane road swept by the gulf breeze that rolls off the nearby sand dunes.

Until you get to Odom's Curve.

There, the east-west road breaks sharply and briefly inland, giving way to a thicket of houses, an exclusive little neighborhood known as Destiny By The Sea, that obstructs the view.

Jay Odom, an up-and-coming developer, floated the idea for Odom's Curve in 1994 as a way to carve out more land for waterfront homes. Controversy erupted, but Odom prevailed.

Signing off on the deal back then was an emerging figure in his own right, 32-year-old Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Ray Sansom.

The road realignment was the small-time beginning for two men whose careers have continued to intersect, each gaining power and prominence in the 15 years since.

Their paths are crossing again as Sansom faces questions over his ties to a local college and the tens of millions in construction dollars he secured for the school. The controversy has cost Sansom his position as state House speaker and drawn the college and its president, Bob Richburg, into the sights of the same grand jury that is investigating Sansom.

Odom is the one whose proposal for a taxpayer-funded airport hangar provided the backbone for a project the college is now building with $6 million in taxpayer money Sansom arranged.

The developer leased the college the land, he transferred city approvals for the site development to the school, and he has been counting on the two-story structure to help shield nearby houses from the noise of his corporate jets.

But Odom, 52, remains at the periphery of scrutiny.

His public persona is varied: hardworking, persuasive, charming, litigious, Type A. Raised in the Panhandle, he has built a mini real estate empire from scratch, but also through a mastery of the political process.

"He's got a dual persona. To some, he's a caring person who does a lot for the community. But he's also a shrewd businessman," said former Destin City Council member Larry Williges. "To me, Jay is out for Jay. He's liked and disliked."

For years, Odom has navigated the higher reaches of Florida power, befriending former Gov. Jeb Bush, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and others. The connections have earned Odom spots on the Citizens Property Insurance Corp. board, where he helped turn back a move to eliminate builders' risk coverage, and on a powerful transportation board that Sansom helped create and that may be steering a highway near one of Odom's housing developments.

With little notice, Odom has become one of the bigger individual campaign donors in the state. His dozen or so corporations have given at least $1.3 million over the past decade, mostly to Republicans, from the prominent to the obscure. (One glaring exception: moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.)

Sansom has received $20,000 from Odom's corporations, records show. Last summer, a political fund Sansom controlled in part got a $100,000 check from Odom's Crystal Beach Development. This month, that fund was closed and the leftover money was transferred to the state party.

Odom also lends his eight-seat Cessna Citation jet to the state GOP, ferrying politicians across Florida. Sansom has used Odom's aircraft so often that some locals call it "Sansom Air." Sansom has his own key code to get past the gates at Destin Airport.

"He's obviously politically connected, but there's a long, long list of his doing good," Steve Riggs, who runs a large accounting firm in the Panhandle, said of Odom. "He works like a dog and everything is done with class."

Odom has a history of deal-making with public funds that goes beyond the $6 million in tax dollars he tried to get for the aircraft hangar. He recently sought more than $700,000 from the city of Fort Walton Beach to build a park at his Uptown Station shopping center. After a public outcry, Odom said he would use his own money.

But he got his way on another matter: the placement of a 170-foot flag pole outside Uptown Station after getting city officials to change the city code limiting poles to 70 feet.

Odom declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a December conversation with the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, he said he expects nothing in return for his donations. "I believe the Republican Party and Republican ideas are the way this country needs to move," he said.

Some of the people who know him best are reluctant to talk about him. Even the normally accessible Jim Greer, head of the state GOP, declined to comment. Sansom last week was given a list of 13 questions about his friend. His office said he was working on the answers, then finally offered this: "I have known Jay Odom for many years. He is a good man who has been a strong community leader for a long time, actively involved in many civic and business organizations."

• • •

Like Sansom, Odom grew up in the Destin area. He went to Choctaw High School and Okaloosa Walton Community College (Sansom attended both). Odom's first job was in the oil business off the coast of Louisiana.

Odom moved to Austin, Texas, and got a taste of the real estate business with the Henry S. Miller Co. In 1986, he returned home to pursue his own enterprise.

"He was ambitious and had a good work ethic," said Michael Shefman, who moved from Texas to help Odom get his start. In those early days, Odom drove around in a beat-up station wagon. His mother kept the books in a handwritten ledger.

"Things started to take off and Jay became kind of arrogant and hard to deal with," Shefman said. "It stopped being fun pretty quick."

By 1994, when Odom proposed realigning part of Scenic Highway 98 for more beachfront land for the Destiny By The Sea development, he was becoming a major player. His proposal drove a wedge into the community. Many feared losing the small-town feel, as well as unfettered access to the pristine white beaches of Destin.

"People were fighting for every scrap of the coastal highway that was left," said Destin City Council member Dewey Destin Jr., a descendant of the town's founding father, who opposed Odom's realignment proposal.

He had plenty of supporters, though, and shrewdly proposed building single family homes rather than towering condos. He buried ugly utility lines in the ground.

Looking to diversify, Odom began buying commercial property, including the shopping center in Fort Walton Beach. He remade it under the name Uptown Station. Nestled among the shops, next to Always A Dollar, is Sansom's legislative office. The state pays Odom $900 a month for the space.

• • •

Odom's most ambitious project is Hammock Bay, a 3,000-acre housing development in the city of Freeport. Situated off Highway 20 in Walton County, it is a verdant dream with rolling fields and trees. It has managed to escape time-consuming and expensive state permitting, thanks to an act of former Gov. Bush.

Bush signed an executive order in December 2004 adding Freeport to a list of rural areas of critical economic concern. That means Hammock Bay could get local approval and not go through the state's exhaustive DRI process, for Developments of Regional Impact.

A blue Scion van parked outside the Hammock Bay welcome center on a recent afternoon proudly advertised a "60-acre sports park!" The park belongs to the city, but Odom donated the land, valuing it at $12 million. When the project was put out to bid, he secured the contract with a $5.4 million offer. The park includes baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts and shuffleboard.

"He owned the land and gave it away. He shouldn't have been able to bid on it," said Tim Tindle, a contractor who came in second in bidding.

Now, Hammock Bay could get a boost from a highway that is planned for the area — and Odom has a role in its development, thanks to Sansom and Bush.

In 2005, Sansom sponsored a bill that created a toll-road authority to build highways parallel to Interstate 10 throughout the Panhandle. Sansom asked Odom to apply to be a member of the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority and, in August 2005, Bush made the appointment. The authority gets federal and state funding and has eminent domain power.

But critics have complained that the authority, with Odom as vice chairman, has chosen a route for one highway that appears to funnel traffic to Hammock Bay.

Last week, Freeport got another potential enhancement when a private firm floated a plan to widen a road and bridge connecting the area with U.S. 98 and the Gulf Coast.

"In my book, this is a stimulus package," vice chairman Odom told the Northwest Florida Daily News. "It's a half-billion dollar stimulus that's not reliant on federal dollars."

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Odom's Curve

In 1994, the Okaloosa County Commission approved a request by young developer Jay Odom to reroute Scenic Highway 98 so he could build houses closer to the beach. Ray Sansom was on the commission and voted for Odom's plan.

Odom's Curve

Old Highway 98

Old Highway 98

Lake

Destiny

Sansom's key friend avoids spotlight 02/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 3:24pm]

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