A reinvention of Florida's panhandle

In a controversial move, the state's largest landowner is remaking the 'Forgotten Coast.'

. - Beneath the downtown clock tower of this burgeoning Gulfside village, WaterColor Market sells things once unheard of here: green-peppercorn olive oil, paté, goat cheese, Niçoise olives, and 10 types of delicate crackers. And there's Starbucks coffee, too - a sure sign that change has come to Florida's panhandle.

Until recently, this was the land time forgot, a region of weathered fishing villages, oyster bars, and white-clapboard churches, with some unflattering nicknames - the "Forgotten Coast" and "Redneck Riviera."

The coast was "forgotten," in part, because vast swaths of it - nearly a million acres - were spoken for, owned by the St. Joe Paper Company. But in recent years, this sleeping giant of a company has awakened. It hired a Walt Disney Company real estate executive as its CEO and dropped "paper" from its name, selling off its sugar and railroad interests, rural telephone companies, and box factories. Last year, it blew up its paper mill, in an explosive end to St. Joe's papermaking days.

Now, Florida's largest private landowner is trying to give the Forgotten Coast a new name - Florida's "Great Northwest" - with some of the most ambitious development plans in recent state history. The result could be another great transformation of the Sunshine State, topping off Miami's emergence as a Latin American mecca and central Florida's role as the nation's unofficial theme park. As a last vestige of the Old South morphs into an outpost of new urbanism in the piney woods, some critics mourn the loss of a culture; others cheer a surge of new dynamism in one of the nation's most populous and important states.

Among St. Joe's efforts to capitalize on its prime chunk of the panhandle, the most mature example may be WaterColor, where crushed-shell pathways bordered by rosemary bushes amble past stylized villas and beach houses. The speed limit is a quaint 17 m.p.h., and in a nod to water conservation, the only grass is in public parks - no private lawns allowed.

It's a "neotraditional" planned community similar to its neighbor, Seaside, the architecturally prepackaged, pedestrian-friendly village that was a backdrop for the 1998 film "The Truman Show." The 499 acres will cradle more than 1,100 homes. And though only 200 are up so far, there's already the easygoing, sand-in-the-streets feel of a beach town - Nantucket with fresh paint and more plants.

WaterColor and Seaside - which strictly regulate architecture and safeguard open space - will be models for St. Joe's other projects. East of WaterColor, toward the former paper-mill town of Port St. Joe, five more communities are under way. Outside Tallahassee, there's Southwood, a 3,200- acre residential project. And a 4,300-acre riverside development near Jacksonville is in the works. Hotels, office buildings, shopping centers, industrial parks, and golf courses are on the way, too; so are developments near Tampa and Orlando. St. Joe is on track to build roughly 28,000 residential units on 27,000 acres.

St. Joe's holdings - including Gulf-front parcels once deemed worthless because paper-producing pine trees couldn't grow there - spread across the equivalent of 1-1/2 Rhode Islands. While company officials stress that they're only developing a fraction of that million acres, the dozens of planned communities will transform Florida's landscape and demographics.

Many Floridians resisted the change - but resigned acceptance is slowly setting in, says Billy Traynor, a Gulf County commissioner. St. Joe, unlike smaller developers, at least has the resources to create "first class" developments, he says. "We know it's coming; let's just make sure it's done right."

To make sure new communities are accessible and livable, St. Joe is also heavily involved in road construction and relocation projects, a proposed new international airport, commercial developments, hospitals, and even charter schools.

Of course, the company's muscular approach has made enemies. Many residents fear the airport plan is a first step in turning the region into the next Orlando. But last month, Bay County commissioners approved plans for St. Joe - with the help of federal dollars - to build a new airport on 4,000 acres it owns north of Panama City. The project must still receive approval from the state and the FAA; those decisions are at least a year away.

To counter opposition to its large-scale developments, St. Joe is selling more than 200,000 acres to state and federal agencies and conservation groups, and has hired a wildlife biologist to assess conservation issues and endangered species. "They're trying to do the right thing," says Robert Bendick, director of the southeast division of the Nature Conservancy, which has purchased St. Joe land. "But there's a long way to go and a lot remains to be seen."

Indeed, St. Joe is trying to avoid the mistakes of past developers here. Instead of towering beachfront condos and hotels, it's aiming for towns with no buildings taller than four stories. The company goal is to enhance the panhandle's prodigious natural beauties - not plow them under. St. Joe President and CEO Peter Rummell, who also worked on EuroDisney and the town of Celebration outside Orlando, calls the approach "placemaking." When Gov. Jeb Bush introduced Mr. Rummell at an event a few years ago, he said St. Joe gave Florida "one last chance to get it right."

"There's a certain burden that goes with that," says Rummell, "a real sense of responsibility." After restructuring St. Joe, Rummell worked to line up the necessary approvals. Now, as work crews cut further into communities such as WaterColor, he's trying to prove that St. Joe can change the region "without screwing up what's so neat about it." That, he concedes, is tricky.

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