Fla. Company Plans to Develop Thousands of Acres Roughly 800,000 acres are being readied for development in Florida's panhandle region — and they're all held by a single company. The state's largest private landowner has transformed itself from a paper manufacturer into a real-estate developer.
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Fla. Company Plans to Develop Thousands of Acres

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Fla. Company Plans to Develop Thousands of Acres

Fla. Company Plans to Develop Thousands of Acres

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

When you think of Florida, you may think of condos lining the beaches of Miami or Fort Lauderdale, retirement communities built up on swampland dotted with golf courses. But there's also Florida's so-called Forgotten Coast, the panhandle stretch along the Gulf of Mexico. As you go inland, white sand beaches give way to palmetto scrub and pine forests. There are a few cities like Tallahassee and popular beach resorts like Panama City. But for the most part, this is rural, unspoiled landscape.

Now, this is changing ,as Florida's largest private landowners starts development. NPR's Greg Allen has been looking into what this means, and he joins me now.

Greg, we start today with a three-part series you have been reporting on the St. Joe Company. Now, this company owns a whole lot of land there.

GREG ALLEN: It does, Debbie, something like 800,000 acres of land. That's a huge swath across the panhandle, as big as, say, the state of Rhode Island. And in this first part of the series, I'm going to look at the history of the company and the business model they've adopted over the last 10 years.

Here's my report. It starts with the company spokesman, Jerry Ray, who explains how St. Joe acquired all that land.

Mr. JERRY RAY (Spokesman, St. Joe Company): This is a company that never sold any land. To sell land was forbidden in St. Joe Company. So for 50, 60, 75 years, this company held all of its land. It was an acquirer, but never a seller.

ALLEN: The story of St. Joe begins with a single man. Ed Ball was a member of the Du Pont family, and in the 1920s, he began what became decades of land buying in Florida, land that eventually became the St. Joe empire. The Du Ponts had lots of money. Florida land seemed like a good investment, and during the Depression, Ed Ball was able to get it at rock-bottom prices.

June Wiaz is the author of "Green Empire," a book about St. Joe that chronicles what she says was Ed Ball's near-obsession with acquiring as much land as possible.

Ms. JUNE WIAZ (Author, "Green Empire"): He loved land, good old Florida sand and mud is what he called it. He did build the paper mill. That was up and running by 1936, and so they needed land for feedstock(ph), for pulp, for the paper mill. And he saw a usefulness and a desire to exploit Mother Nature to the fullest.

ALLEN: For 70 years, St. Joe mostly was a paper company, harvesting and replanting pine trees on its hundreds of thousands of acres and operating a paper mill in the panhandle town that gave the company its name. But by the 1990s, declining profitability in the paper business and the rising value of Florida land led St. Joe to adopt a new business model. Instead of a paper manufacturer, the company almost overnight reformed itself as a real estate developer, with vision and ambitions nearly as large as its million-plus acres of land.

St. Joe began planning and building communities that used innovative architecture and elements of new urbanism, communities that have redefined what it means to live in Florida's panhandle.

An example of what St. Joe has in mind for the panhandle can be found here in Tallahassee. SouthWood is a planned community on 3,300 acres with a town center, schools, a YMCA and a golf course. After seven years, it's about halfway built out. Workers are now putting up town homes near the town center.

SouthWood also has something called an art of living director - a person who works fulltime planning activities that help promote a sense of community. It's all part of a concept Jerry Ray calls placemaking.

Mr. RAY: Placemaking is taking all of the components of how we live and thinking them through before any door is turned, making sure that what we do is authentic, that we don't drop in buildings or building materials or concepts that are foreign to this culture. We want to make this a better example of itself.

ALLEN: Plans for SouthWood began in the 1980s, before St. Joe had redefined itself as a full-fledged real estate developer. At that time, this area southeast of town was just forests and rolling farmland. The key to the project turned out to be 273 acres St. Joe donated to the state of Florida to build an office complex. The state improved roads serving the area and moved hundreds of jobs to the new facility, which today sits at the center of St. Joe's SouthWood development.

That strategy of donating land or selling it to the state at favorable prices is one St. Joe has used time and time again to build the value of its property before it develops it. Jerry Ray says after years of never parting with any land, St. Joe now feels a civic duty to help build new roads, hospitals, even airports in areas that up to now have been underserved.

Mr. RAY: What we've made a decision to do is to do our part in promoting a good civic infrastructure so that people can have the hospital, the road, the school.

ALLEN: But it does also benefit the company, too, I mean…

Mr. RAY: Absolutely. There's no doubt that it does. But it also - it benefits everybody who's here and you who come here to visit. It benefits you.

ALLEN: A company as large and powerful as St. Joe certainly is bound to have its share of critics. It's involved in several lawsuits brought by individuals and groups trying to stop its developments. And because of the company's size, a lot is at stake. In some counties, St. Joe owns more than half of the privately held land, and what it does with that land will determine the future of these now largely rural areas.

Charles Pattison is the executive director of 1000 Friends of Florida, a growth management watchdog group based in Tallahassee. He said because of its size, St. Joe takes a different approach than most developers.

Mr. CHARLES PATTISON (Executive Director, 1000 Friends of Florida): We've found them to be pretty responsible. Their quality of development is higher than a lot of the developments we see around the state. I think that the real issue is that they are so big that they will make some fundamental changes even if they develop modestly in this part of the state, just because we haven't seen that kind of development.

Mr. RAY: Just for a second and then…

ALLEN: Jerry Ray drives me up to one of St. Joe's premier projects. WaterColor is a high-end beach community about halfway between Pensacola and Panama City. It's anything but a cookie-cutter development. Walking into the community centerpiece, the WaterColor Inn, Ray points out some of the details that help make this community so distinctive. It's a style that builds an architecture used here for decades, something he calls Quacker(ph) modern.

Mr. RAY: Exposed beams and exposed rafter tails. In the beginning, that was because it was a cheap way to build. But now, it's been lifted here as to an art form, and you've got some of the best architects in the world who come here and adapted this style. It's a wonderful feel, but it's very indigenous to this area.

ALLEN: WaterColor is different from other beach communities in another way. No houses here overlook the beach. Behind the beach, instead of houses, are dunes, which are habitat to the endangered Choctawhatchee beach mouse.

Mr. RAY: And we've got a wildlife biologist here, a fulltime guy. We're working with others up and down this beach to preserve this little species.

Well, I'm - I'm really looking out on the ocean, and instead of looking on the expensive beach wrecks, they're looking at the backside of dunes. And a lot of people would consider that a negative, but not our customers. This is a positive.

And this is what a lot of people don't realize, is that there is a new paradigm shift in what the customer wants. And that's - the customer wants now to have an environmentally sensitive approach to coastal living. Now, the beach is there, it didn't go away, but this is the right way to do it.

ALLEN: Like developers around the country, St. Joe has had to tighten its belt with the downturn in housing sales. While the downturn has hit primary housing developments like SouthWood, St. Joe says second-home communities like WaterColor have been largely unaffected. Those homes and others in St. Joe resort communities are being marketed far beyond Florida, aiming especially at aging baby boomers in the South and Midwest. Charles Pattison of 1000 Friends of Florida:

Mr. PATTISON: The interesting thing to me is that when you go and look at their marketing techniques, what they're selling is the rural, historic slow pace of life that's here in northwest Florida. I think a lot of people wonder if that's what the end result's going to be if all these people come.

ELLIOTT: That was a report from NPR's Greg Allen on the St. Joe Company, and Greg's back with me again now. Hi, Greg.

ALLEN: Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You know, I'm struck with what Mr. Pattison had to say, because I've been to WaterColor and it is a very picturesque beach resort. You know, it's not at all like the high-rise condo developments you might find elsewhere on the Gulf Coast.

But you can go right next door to the Grayton Beach State Park literally right up against the WaterColor Development and see the way old Florida used to be. There are huge sand dunes on the beach. There are palmetto scrub, the big oak trees with the Spanish moss hanging down, surrounding back bays and lakes. And there are not these houses and condominiums. And no matter how picturesque, you get the stark contrast between this is a developed Florida and this is undeveloped Florida.

ALLEN: That's true, and it's - there's no question that the St. Joe Company is going to change the way that north Florida, the panhandle, looks. Even so, they say they've only developed one percent of all that land they own along there, so far. And when they finish their development, which they, you know, look out 50 years or more, even at that point, they say it will never look like south Florida or central Florida where development has run amuck.

But tomorrow, on MORNING EDITION, we'll hear a story about what's going on in Franklin County, right nearby. It's the heart of the panhandle seafood industry. The main town there is Apalachicola, a town known for its oysters. And many people there are worried that development and the seafood industry may not be able to continue to co-exist for very much longer.

ELLIOTT: Well, we look forward to hearing that report on MORNING EDITION. NPR's Greg Allen, thank you so much.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

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