If there's one thing to know about the St. Joe Co., it's that no one alive today is young enough to see the company's last acre built out. As the largest private land owner in the Sunshine State, Joe controls roughly 850,000 acres in Northwest Florida.
But through an accident of history, most of it is still in the undeveloped state that it was purchased in way back in the early to mid-1900s. Enter Peter Rummell, former chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering, and creator of the town of Celebration. Appointed chairman and CEO in 1997, Rummell honed in on the company's massive land position, whittling the former conglomerate into a land development company, supported by resort/residential and commercial real estate arms.
Inspired by places like Santa Fe and Nantucket, he decided Joe had the ability—and responsibility—to create a new and more attractive identity for the entire northwest Florida region. He took the concept of “place making,” the creation of individual communities with distinct character, put it on steroids, and super regional land planning appears about to be born.
So much for the plan, now for the execution. In the coming months and years, Joe's setting out literally to morph northwest Florida's shabby chic appeal into a second-home, active adult, and working family Mecca, building a tourism economy around the region's natural beauty. At the same time, Joe's marketing the future promise of the area to engage the nation's blue chip home builders in a blitz of new residences in the middle of it all.
But for the past 10 years, Rummell has worked with local leaders to seed the region, using Joe's residential and commercial construction businesses to kick-start regional economic growth. Indeed, modest job expansion trends stretched from the late 1990s into the early part of the decade, but suddenly, job growth more than doubled during the past two years.
In 2006, Joe will take its first massive step toward realizing its regional master plan, moving through final approvals toward development of the 75,000-acre West Bay Sector Plan in Bay County. The idea's genesis was Panama City authorities' plea for land to relocate its airport, which fails to meet federal regulations governing runway safety areas and has no room to expand. Protected marine life prohibits extending the runway into the bay, and hundreds of homes would have to be razed to lengthen the runway in the opposite direction.
Joe saw relocating the airport within its giant land holding as a platform to catapult a new master planned district, which would transform the area into a transportation, industrial, commercial, and recreational hub. In addition to the 14,000 acres set aside for the airport and easement, the plan allows for approximately 4.4 million square feet of industrial, commercial, and retail space; 5,842 residential units; 490 hotel rooms; and two marinas.
Ted Clem, executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance, explains, “The leadership of St. Joe that came with the ascendancy of Peter Rummell … has benefited the community well beyond the [its] ability to understand.”