Florida's last frontier is about to be tamed.
Right now, in a place where there is nothing for miles, where the only living creatures are deer and turkeys, a powerful company wants to put an airport that would be bigger than Tampa's.
That's for starters. The company wants to create cities where there is just sand, turn a park into a shopping mall, run expressways through the swamps.
The people are coming, no doubt about it.
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From the air, this stretch of the Panhandle appears as an unending swath of green. In the rural counties west of Tallahassee, pine trees still outnumber people and the land is largely untouched by the development that has carved up the rest of Florida.
Winding roads connect a handful of towns too small to have a stoplight. Black bears prowl the thick woods. Along the coast stretch miles of glistening white beaches, and the oysters can grow as big as a man's hand.
People who live here call it "the forgotten coast." It has remained forgotten because the St. Joe Co., the state's largest private landowner, wanted it that way.
When Florida land was dirt-cheap in the 1920s, the company bought up more than 1-million acres. On most of its property St. Joe planted rows of slash pines, destined to become fodder for a smoke-belching paper mill it built in Port St. Joe. The company's patriarch, Ed Ball, made sure the Panhandle remained a sleepy backwater.
But now Ball is dead, the mill is defunct and St. Joe is no longer a stodgy paper company. Instead, it has transformed itself into the biggest and most ambitious developer in the state.
From the sand dunes of Walton County to the rolling pastures just outside the capital, bulldozers are rumbling across St. Joe land, launching the most sweeping change to the Florida landscape since Walt Disney turned a swamp into the Magic Kingdom.
On land that until now has been in the middle of nowhere, St. Joe is building homes and hotels, hospitals and schools, golf courses and shopping centers, theaters and restaurants, offices and industrial parks.
"My goal is to create some interesting towns, some interesting places," said 56-year-old St. Joe chairman Peter Rummell, whose last job was overseeing Disney's real estate empire.
The company even wants to change the region's nickname from the Panhandle to "Florida's Great Northwest." Spokesman Jerry Ray said St. Joe executives frown on the word "Panhandle" because a panhandler is someone looking for a handout.
To make its plans work, though, St. Joe executives are looking for a little help _ from the taxpayers.
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The company is seeking government help with land or money, or both.
To unlock the value of its vast holdings, St. Joe executives want a big new airport and new expressways costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
To create more waterfront, they want to move U.S. 98 away from the beach. To give their upscale homebuyers gulf access for their boats, they want to put a marina in an aquatic preserve on state-owned land. To attract more buyers, they want to build an outlet mall on what used to be state property.
"They're making the taxpayers pay for all this and then they walk off with all the money," complained St. Joe Beach resident Sally Malone, who has been fighting the U.S. 98 move.
Marketing its new developments, St. Joe emphasizes the Panhandle's slow pace and folksy charm, touting the tupelo honey produced nowhere but Wewahitchka and the tasty gumbo at the Indian Pass Raw Bar. One brochure describes Port St. Joe as "a place where, if you forgot to put soap on the grocery list, you can call George at the Piggly Wiggly and he'll find your husband on aisle 8 and remind him."
Such homey touches are possible in places like Gulf County, population 13,000, and Franklin County, population 11,000. But if St. Joe succeeds, tens of thousands of newcomers from St. Joe's targeted marketing area, which Rummell calls "the middle South," will pour in from Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston and points in between. So many rootless transplants will inevitably alter the region's economy, politics and culture.
"Except for the Piggly Wiggly, there's not going to be any place for a small-town person to be in it," contended John Spohrer, fishing columnist for a local weekly called the Forgotten Coast Line.
St. Joe's customers are more likely to get their hair styled at a salon than get a buzz cut at the barber shop. They will live on Mystic Cobalt Street or Moss Rose Way, not Monument Avenue. They will want full-service marinas for their 60-foot yachts, not a ramp for their bass boats.
"The type of development that's going on is going to create a rich and a poor community," predicted 59-year-old Port St. Joe native Barbara Eells, a retired schoolteacher. "The prices they're charging, it takes someone from out of town or out of state to buy it."
Planning experts say the Panhandle is fortunate that St. Joe and its subsidiary Arvida are the ones remaking the region. St. Joe's developments follow the "New Urbanism" trend, putting schools and businesses within walking distance of homes.
"It's a better product than what we've seen in other large-scale developments," said Charles Pattison, head of of 1,000 Friends of Florida. "They're raising the bar."
St. Joe executives tout how their developments will improve the "Great Northwest," creating thousands of new jobs, pumping millions of dollars into an economy that has been in a swoon since the mill closed. Many locals resent how the company they call the "800-Pound Gorilla" plans to change a place they hold so dear _ but they believe resistance is futile.
As former mill employee John Reeves, who now owns a Port St. Joe furniture store, puts it: "Yeah I don't trust St. Joe entirely, but what else have we got?"
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In a beige, four-story building across the St. Johns River from downtown Jacksonville, St. Joe executives have spent five years mapping out how to squeeze what they call "value to the Nth degree" from the company's 39 miles of gulf coastline and an expanse of timberland stretching almost to Alabama.
Because St. Joe owns so much land, it can sequence its developments like a line of dominoes, with coastal projects filling up first, leading to the ones further inland.
Thousands of acres of timberland that don't fit the company's plans are being sold off piecemeal to become private hunting preserves or large country homesites called RiverCamps. The company will auction 5,000 acres in Gadsden County this week, with another 5,000 acres in Bay and Washington counties slated for the block May 7.
St. Joe's own plans are massive and immediate. The company has 20 developments in various stages of planning and construction, with permits to build more than 10,000 homes so far and more developments on the way. Rummell, who grew up near Utica, N.Y., calls it "regional place-making" _ redrawing the map of Florida.
"It's a large, complicated effort to figure out what to do with a million acres," he said.
There is no comparable effort in the halls of government. No local, state or federal agency is considering the cumulative impact of St. Joe's plans. State planners _ whose offices sit on land St. Joe donated on the outskirts of Tallahassee _ say state law never anticipated anything as sweeping as what St. Joe is doing.
Making the state's job even harder, last year St. Joe lobbyists persuaded the Legislature to loosen the rules governing big developments in rural areas, arguing that helping St. Joe develop its land more quickly would boost employment in the job-starved region.
The task of reviewing St. Joe's plans has fallen to short-handed local planners in small counties. Most have never seen projects so big. In a land with no stoplights, there is little to slow St. Joe's steamroller.
"Welcome to the Panhandle, owned and operated by St. Joe," joked Aubrey Davis, chairman of the Washington County Republican Party.
St. Joe's development machine is oiled by its political influence. St. Joe has donated the maximum legal amount to more than 100 candidates for Cabinet and legislative posts from both parties over the past five years, with subsidiaries like Arvida often making an identical donation to the same candidates.
Rummell and his wife gave $20,000 to the Republican National Committee during the last presidential race. The attorney shepherding St. Joe's development plans in Bay County, William Harrison, co-chaired the Bush presidential campaign in the Panhandle. And St. Joe bought a one-third interest in Gov. Jeb Bush's former real estate company, the Codina Group in Miami.
Last week, St. Joe executives hosted a Republican fundraiser. Among the guests at their corporate headquarters: Gov. Bush and incoming Senate President Jim King.
Rummell says it's no accident that St. Joe has built strong political connections.
"We could go out and hire people who aren't very smart and don't know anybody," he said. "We've chosen not to do that."
Rummell says he regularly chats with the governor about projects St. Joe is interested in, including a new airport for Panama City: "I've talked with him in general about it, how important it is strategically for Northwest Florida."
The Bush brothers have committed millions of federal and state dollars to the airport, despite questions about whether anyone but St. Joe will benefit.
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Don Hodges steers his boat along Burnt Mill Creek, putt-putting around its twists and turns. The banks are lined with live oaks and pines. Every one belongs to St. Joe, which owns thousands of acres all around.
The bustle of Panama City is 20 miles to the southeast. When Hodges kills his motor, the only sound is the rippling creek. If St. Joe has its way, that sound will be drowned out by jets landing at a new airport.
The current terminal at Panama City-Bay County International Airport was built just seven years ago. Passengers step off small commuter jets into a green-roofed ghost town. It's so quiet, the control tower shuts down every night at 10 p.m.
Delta 737s used to land at the picturesque airport on St. Andrew Bay. Now three commuter airlines and a charter service use the airport, bringing just 174,000 passengers last year, 5,000 less than the year before.
Yet at St. Joe's prodding, Panama City's airport authority hopes to build a new airport on 4,000 acres of pines and wetlands donated by St. Joe _ land that until recently was leased to the state as a wildlife management area. The nearest neighbor is the 6,900-acre Pine Log State Forest.
In the past 30 years, only four new commercial airports have been built: Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Fort Myers and Fayetteville, Ark. Each took decades of planning and study.
Panama City foresees no obstacles to opening its new airport, which would be bigger than the 3,300-acre Tampa International Airport, in just four years.
"This new facility will . . . bring improved air service at competitive fares to Bay County," airport executive director Randy Curtis predicted. "It will also be a key factor in attracting more and better-paying jobs."
Hodges, a retired Delta Airlines executive who has helped battle the new airport, is skeptical: "Their idea is that you can put an airport out in a rural area and the airlines will come."
Critics say the new airport is a boondoggle whose real purpose is to boost St. Joe's development plans. In a letter to St. Joe stockholders, chairman Rummell said the new airport is "essential to unlocking the enormous value of our holdings."
With the airport in place, St. Joe would be able to proceed with plans for the 70,000 acres around it, building homes, stores, hotels, bars, schools, even a barge port. Without the airport, Rummell said, those plans may never bear fruit.
The airport's price tag is conservatively estimated at more than $200-million, with 80 percent to come from taxpayers. President Bush recently declared the new airport a "high priority" and earmarked $2-million for planning. The state has put $10-million into it, and Gov. Bush wants $10-million more this year.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, wonders why the state should pay for something that smells like a St. Joe subsidy: "I think it's a very questionable use of the taxpayer's money for the benefit of a large corporation."
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Twice a year, thousands of people throng Bessant Park in Panama City Beach.
In the fall, crowds at the Indian Summer Seafood Festival browse the craft tents and sample steamed shrimp and raw oysters. In the spring, Tennessee walking horses strut for the Gulf Coast Charity Horse Show. The rest of the year, the park sits vacant.
Some of the land in Bessant Park belonged to the state _ until St. Joe stepped in with plans for a makeover that required declaring it a slum.
In its place will be Pier Park, a 240-acre complex of restaurants, hotels, theaters and an outlet mall on land that now includes a large titi swamp.
To make it work, the city and St. Joe had to convince the state to hand over 12 acres of park land. They agreed to pay the state $2.2-million, using a grant from the Florida Communities Trust program, which is supposed to provide money for parks.
In other words, state money that is supposed to be spent on setting aside park land instead will pay for acquiring the state's own property on behalf of a developer. Panama City Beach won't have to pay a dime, and neither will St. Joe.
Then, to arrange tax-free municipal bonds to pay to build Pier Park, the city declared Bessant Park a blighted area. But a judge balked, ruling that if vacant Bessant Park is blighted, then "all of St. Joe's pinelands are blighted, and most of the Panhandle."
While attorneys appeal, St. Joe worked out a different financing method and broke ground last month.
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About an hour's drive south of Tallahassee, where thick stands of palmetto grow right to the edge of U.S. 98, the only sign of human habitation is FSU's marine laboratory at Turkey Point. The lab is named for the benefactor who donated the land decades ago: Ed Ball.
Ball's successors recently told FSU that the St. Joe Co. would very much like to have that land back.
St. Joe wants to build a 499-home resort community there called SummerCamp. To boost the number of waterfront lots, the company wants to move U.S. 98 inland. It wants to build a marina, too _ in the middle of the Alligator Harbor Aquatic Preserve.
The marina would provide water access for SummerCamp and thousands of residents of a larger St. Joe development in Tallahassee called SouthWood.
To St. Joe executives the ideal place for the marina is right where the marine lab sits because the state already has spent $2.5-million to dredge a deep-water channel for the research boats.
St. Joe took FSU professors and administrators on a helicopter tour of the company's coastal holdings, searching for a new home for the lab. But nothing looked as good as Turkey Point.
"It's one of the last unspoiled places on the Florida coast," said the lab's associate director, John Hitron. "That's the reason people come here to do research, because of the cleanliness."
When FSU wouldn't move, St. Joe proposed building its marina on adjacent land also owned by FSU. That way SummerCamp could still use the channel.
But FSU scientists said a marina and marine lab can't coexist. FSU is waiting to hear St. Joe's full proposal.
The company's tactics on SummerCamp have earned them the enmity of state Rep. Will Kendrick, D-Carrabelle, who said St. Joe executives told him they had no plans for Franklin County _ only to have the marina proposal pop up in the press.
"They talk with forked tongue," Kendrick said.
Two local environmental groups also say St. Joe executives misled them. "They initially told us they were just going to put in a boat dock there," said Paul Johnson of the Apalachee Ecological Conservancy. "Now it's a 26-foot marina with 200-plus slips for dry storage."
Rummell angrily denied anyone at St. Joe lied about the marina.
"Developing is a completely open book," he said. "To suggest we could lie is personally repugnant to me. We disclose everything we're asked to, and more."
Last month the Franklin County Commission approved the plans for SummerCamp _ except for the marina. That part, for now, is on hold.
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St. Joe runs another marina a few miles up U.S. 98 in Port St. Joe. In the shadow of the old paper mill, rich boat owners from Georgia and Alabama moor their big Buddy Davises.
"The local people don't like it," said Reeves, the ex-mill worker who now sells furniture. "It only employs a couple of people. You don't have a job, do you have a 100-foot yacht to put in there?"
There was a time when St. Joe provided hundreds of jobs. Back when the mill chewed up logs night and day, Port St. Joe's economy was so good it had five car dealerships and three department stores.
But in 1996, the company sold the mill for $390-million so it could concentrate on real estate. When the new owners shut the mill down in 1998, 500 people lost work. Cars were repossessed. Stores closed. The locals struggled to keep open the schools, firehouses and police stations.
Now the mill is about to be torn down. The biggest local employer is the state prison up near Wewahitchka. In downtown Port St. Joe, the big businesses are three Dollar Stores.
So when St. Joe executives proposed a fancy new beachfront development for Port St. Joe, they were greeted with distrust.
St. Joe's plans for its WindMark development called for more than 1,000 homes, a shopping center, hotels, maybe even a golf course. But there was a catch: nearly 4 miles of U.S. 98 would have to be moved inland, routing it around WindMark.
That section of U.S. 98 offers gorgeous views of the gulf. There are a dozen places to cross the dunes and build sand castles, swim or catch crabs. Churches conduct baptisms there.
Residents howled that St. Joe was stealing their beach. St. Joe executives promised they would set aside two places where the public could cross through WindMark to reach the dunes. Still, some remain skeptical about the reception they might get from WindMark's buyers.
"These people ain't gonna want us to come around in our raggedy cars," complained Claston Boyette, 43, of Port St. Joe, who subsists on a disability check.
The Gulf County Commission decided to let the people vote on the road relocation. But St. Joe had other ideas.
WindMark was not on the County Commission agenda in January when St. Joe executive Clay Smallwood showed up with a resolution to move the highway. Smallwood, who chairs the Gulf County planning board, had privately briefed commissioners on his resolution before the public meeting.
Among the handful of people who happened to be in the audience, Smallwood's move sparked a bitter debate about whether the jobs that would be created would be worth losing the beach.
"Basically the jobs will be as servants, waiters and waitresses to clean up after the rich people," contended Marilyn Blackwell of Wewahitchka.
"People like me are willing to be servants to earn that wage," replied Scott Godwin, a former mill employee now working as an electrical contractor.
Smallwood got his wish: Commissioners agreed to move U.S. 98. The voters had no say.
St. Joe has promised to pay about half of the estimated $47-million cost. Taxpayers will pay the rest.
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Moving U.S. 98 is just the first step in a series of highway projects St. Joe is pushing. Another is a road to connect U.S. 98 to U.S. 231 called the Gulf Coast Parkway. The state has spent $2-million deciding the parkway's route, and the governor wants another $2-million for next year.
On paper, the parkway's sponsor is Opportunity Florida, which promotes economic development among rural Panhandle counties. St. Joe is a major supporter, donating money and holding a seat on its board.
When Opportunity Florida asked the state for money for the Gulf Coast Parkway, the only other copy of the application went to a St. Joe executive, not to any of the affected counties.
The application says the new road will help hurricane evacuation. Opponents scoff at the idea that evacuation times will improve by funneling even more traffic onto U.S. 231, which turned into a parking lot when Hurricane Opal threatened in 1995.
"A blind squirrel wouldn't pick up that acorn," said parkway opponent Ben Pridgeon, a retiree from Wewahitchka.
Pridgeon says the road's real purpose is to open up St. Joe's inland holdings for development, and to give St. Joe's customers a quick route to their vacation homes while avoiding little towns like Wewahitchka that dot the current north-south route.
Similar concerns have cropped up in the small towns north of Panama City over a second expressway that St. Joe is pushing between the beach and Alabama, a $700-million road that bypasses the small towns as it wraps around the proposed airport site.
"The people are scared to death of that expressway and do not want it," said Washington County Republican chairman Davis, who lives in Chipley. If the road is built, he said, towns now on the main routes north may never see another tourist.
"They'll fuel up in Panama City and get their Cokes and then they'll zoom on up to Alabama," Davis said. "They'll never stop here in these little towns. These little towns up here are going to die. They're going to wither up and die."
Rummell says his company has no intention of killing the very thing that makes the Panhandle attractive to buyers, its homespun charm.
"That's why there's a certain amount of art to this," Rummell said. "There's an enormous strength in that area. We are the last ones to have any interest in screwing that up."
People should trust St. Joe to preserve the character of the region while redrawing the map, he said: "I would consider it a failure if we turned it into something that it isn't."
_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
For 60 years the St. Joe Co.'s most visible symbol in Port St. Joe was its smoke-belching paper mill. Now local residents know the company for leasing the city's marina, full of expensive boats belonging mostly to outsiders. Below is one of the markers the old St. Joe Paper Co. put on its more than 1-million acres starting in the 1920s.
Morning breaks over Port St. Joe, where the St. Joe Co.'s old paper mill still dominates the landscape. Opened in 1938, it closed in 1998. Now the focus of a toxic waste investigation, the mill is slated for demolition this spring.
St. Joe executives believe a new Panama City airport, to be built on 4,000 acres of St. Joe timberland near Burnt Mill Creek, would spur development on the 70,000 acres the company owns around the site.
To attract thousands of customers to its new housing developments, St. Joe's marketing campaign emphasizes the Panhandle's small-town charm, epitomized by quirky places like Jim McNeill's Indian Pass Raw Bar, south of Port St. Joe.
Maurice Jay takes a break at St. Joe's WaterColor beachfront development in Walton County. St. Joe boasts its developments create jobs; critics contend those jobs will be as servants to the company's wealthy customers.
President Bush recently declared the new airport St. Joe Co. wants to build in Panama City a "high priority" and earmarked $2-million for planning. Others aren't sure the airport would benefit anyone but St. Joe.
New airport and outlet mall
St. Joe wants the government to build a new airport on 4,000 acres of St. Joe-donated timberland, then St. Joe would develop its 70,000 surrounding acres. In Panama City Beach, the company is turning a parcel of swampy park land into an outlet mall and entertainment complex called Pier Park.
Status: Airport scheduled to open in 2006; regulators still reviwing plans and looking into environmental impact. St. Joe broke ground on Pier Park last month; first phase to be complete next spring.
Highways and byways
St. Joe wants the government to build new highways and move old ones. They want to move 4 miles of U.S. 98 near Port St. Joe to create more waterfront property for its WindMark development. They want a new highway (the Gulf Coast Parkway) to connect U.S. 98 with U.S. 231, and a new expressway between Panama City and the Alabama line. Estimated cost: hundreds of millions.
Status: Moving U.S. 98 has been approved; state has put millions of dollars into planning Gulf Coast Parkway; it selected route for the other expressway, but that project is on hold.
Research or recreation
St. Joe wants to build its SummerCamp development at Turkey Point and use FSU land to put a marina next door to the college's marine research laboratory. The marina would serve SummerCamp as well as SouthWood, a St. Joe development in Tallahassee. Also, St. Joe wants to move U.S. 98 inland to create more waterfront property for SummerCamp.
Status: SummerCamp development and moving U.S. 98 have been approved. The marina is on hold.
EVOLUTION OF A GIANT
1924: Alfred DuPont and Ed Ball begin acquiring thousands of acres for what eventually will become the St. Joe Paper Co. Ball takes charge after DuPont's death in 1935.
1938: St. Joe Paper opens its paper mill in Port St. Joe.
1981: The powerful Ed Ball dies. At first, successors make no changes.
1990: St. Joe stock splits 350-for-1, opening the company up to investors who start pushing for it to get into the development business.
1996: St. Joe sells the paper mill. New owner shuts it down for five months in 1997 and closes it for good in 1998, throwing hundreds out of work.
1997: Disney executive Peter Rummell hired to lead St. Joe into its new life as a development giant, a move symbolized the following year when the company drops "Paper" from its name.
1999: St. Joe sells 89 of its 90 lots in The Retreat in Walton County, its first waterfront development. Average price: $400,000.