Twenty-five years ago, Jacksonville, Florida was the stinky town on I-95 you drove through on the way to other more famous and alluring parts of the state. It was a gritty, decidedly blue-collar place, with shipyards, Navy bases, and an odor in the air so acrid you could taste it on foggy days.

The smell is long-gone now—the industries that caused it closed or cleaned up—and so is the image of Jacksonville as an Interstate way station to parts south.

A good quality of life, fast-growing yet a stable diverse economy, relative affordability, a NFL franchise, and a Super Bowl have all helped make northeast Florida a destination. Nearly 70 people a day moved to the area last year, as have a number of national businesses, including big builders.

“When you said Jacksonville, Fla., I couldn't place it on a map” several years ago, says Vince DePorre, southeast coast territory president for KB Home. “It was kind of a hidden or secret market.”

REVIVAL: Jacksonville, Fla., in the northeast corner of the state, is seeing a growing population and a stable, diverse economy, which is a good market for big builders. Nevertheless, KB Home chose Jacksonville as its first venture east of the Mississippi four years ago, about the same time a raft of other big builders moved in. “We are not always right, but we sure were right with this one,” says DePorre, who moved to the area about two years ago.

They certainly were. KB was No. 6 on the 2005 local leaders list, building nearly 800 homes in 10 communities. Three new communities are scheduled to open this year.

“One way you measure success is by how much you are allowed to reinvest to buy land to put in the division,” says De-Porre. “The home office has been very supportive of that here. They say, ‘Keep doing what you're doing. Don't stop. The only thing we want is more of it.'”

BUILDERS COME TO TOWN Big builders who couldn't get enough of the market have bought out all but one local builder of any size in the past five or six years, leaving only one local-based builder on the list of the 25 top market leaders.

Eleven publicly traded builders held 41 percent of the market share in Jacksonville, according to Credit Suisse estimates. And they were all busy helping boost building permits nearly 30 percent, pushing the market to No. 5 in permit issuance last year. What's the allure?

“Jacksonville has, No. 1, the most diverse economic base in the state of Florida,” explains Michael J. Timmerman, managing director of Florida Hanley Wood Market Intelligence.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Jacksonville, FL.