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Leaner St. Joe Co. wants boomers to retire in its 'national park' development

Published Jul. 2, 2015

A company that has single-handedly transformed the Florida Panhandle from the Redneck Riviera to a land festooned with upscale second homes, beachfront communities and its own jet-capable airport is at it again.

St. Joe Co., once the largest private landowner in Florida, told shareholders at its annual meeting this week that it has the green light to build a vast "active adult" community to woo baby boomer retirees.

St. Joe once again is thinking big and long term. It's committing 110,000 acres, mostly in Bay County south of Interstate 10, to its new retiree development, setting aside 53,000 acres in conservation.

Jeffrey Keil, interim CEO, sees St. Joe pitching boomers with the feeling of living inside a national park. "National parks have an image and place in America that we think is appealing to a lot of people," Keil said. Especially people about to retire and enter, as he calls it, "the best years of their lives."

St. Joe is planning on a grand scale, including 170,000 residential units and more than 22 million square feet of retail and commercial space.

Raymond James Financial analyst Buck Horne, who tracks St. Joe for investors, asked Keil if this new age-restricted community would compete with Florida's other magnet for retirees: the Villages, north of Orlando.

"We are in a different location," Keil responded. "This is nothing like the Villages."

Selling retirees on the Panhandle life is hardly a new idea to St. Joe. I wrote a column in 2004 with the headline Will new Panhandle development attract a flood of new retirees? Back then, I was writing about WaterColor, a master-planned community that is now St. Joe's premier Panhandle project. Geographically it hugs smaller Seaside, a "new urbanism" beachfront development WaterColor largely mimics.

But the headline question is worth asking anew. A decade ago, St. Joe was a muscular real estate developer with vast lands and vast plans.

Since then, St. Joe has suffered from management turnover, miscues and a deep national recession. Much of its premium beachfront land has been developed, leaving St. Joe with the greater challenge of selling scrubby Panhandle acreage without a gulf view.

The company in 2013 opted to sell a whopping 383,000 forested acres for $565 million to a real estate company owned by the Mormon Church. St. Joe has also suffered some major battles by big shareholders with sharply different views on what direction the business should be taking.

One outcome of those battles is that Bruce Berkowitz became St. Joe's current chairman. As chief investment officer of the Fairholme Fund, Berkowitz controls 27 percent of the company's shares.

The result is a company whose stock peaked a decade ago at more than $80 a share. It closed Wednesday at $15.70.

Even interim CEO Keil, at 71, is busy hunting for a successor to run St. Joe. But he knows all about doing real estate big. Earlier this year, he put his 15-bedroom Brooklyn brownstone on the New York market for a cool $40 million.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.