2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

2010: This Blog in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,800 times in 2010. That’s about 9 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 6 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 10 posts. There were 19 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 11mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was April 19th with 63 views. The most popular post that day was 2010: The Year of the Prefab…again.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were johnahendry.com, mariaozawa2u.blogspot.com, facebook.com, linkedin.com, and tips-tools-tutorials.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for levittown, levittown ny, levittowns, levittown, ny, and levittown long island.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

2010: The Year of the Prefab…again December 2009
3 comments

2

What Next For Bear Mountain? July 2010

3

Nanaimo’s Secret February 2010

4

America’s New International Airport May 2010
1 comment

5

About October 2009
4 comments

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport : So Far So Good.

Good news for the Gulf of Mexico has been hard to come by for some time but it seems that this beautiful coastline has finally caught a small break.

My friend Jerry emailed me last week to let me know that, during the first full month of its operation, the new Panama City airport was performing considerably better than expected.  Jerry was intimately involved in the saga of the new airport, from its conception in 1998 until the the day that it opened in May and he and his family boarded the first Southwest Airlines flight to land there. He’s following the story closer than most and the numbers are very encouraging.  The total in-bound and out-bound passenger traffic nearly tripled June 09’s figure at the old airport and outpaced all of the nearest regional airports in the Florida Panhandle. Given the hugely negative publicity caused by the BP oil spill and the fact that it is now officially hurricane season in the Gulf, it’s remarkable that the new airport has gotten off to such a strong start.

I’m betting that even Jerry was surprised.  Earlier in the year, the largest local landowner, the St Joe Company (NYSE:JOE), had seen its stock rise steadily in response to some enthusiastic analyst reports. Then, just as the new airport looked set to reinforce Wall Street’s quietly growing confidence in JOE, BP and its CEO lit up the news media with a spectacular display of inept public relations.  JOE’s stock, underpinned by all that land and real estate overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, suffered severe collateral damage.

St Joe Beach, Mid July 2010.

An announcement by JOE that it was relocating its headquarters from Jacksonville to the the new airport business park – a pretty radical step, given that the company had been based in Jacksonville since Alfred I. duPont, its founder, had moved there in the 1930s – was met with indifference.  The only thing people could imagine were those sugar-sand beaches caked in oil. But the company has persevered, informing everyone daily about the continuing quality of its beaches and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the airport numbers are so good.  My family were recently in Port St Joe and they confirmed that the beaches were clean, adding to the word-of-mouth and social networking that seems to be fueling the information flow in places like Atlanta and Birmingham, cities which typically head for the Gulf once school is out.

July 14th 2010. Another busy day at St Joe Beach

It’s too early of course to read too much into  the airport usage statistics but one can’t help be encouraged by the positive message that they send and, of course, be pleased for  all of those folk in Panama City and Port St Joe for whom the last few months have been so unrelentingly gloomy.  Thanks for sharing, Jerry!

Sunset on St Joe Beach, July 2010. Just as beautiful as ever.

What Next For Bear Mountain?

They couldn’t have timed it better. It was the last-but-one week in June and the Telus World Skins golf game was being hosted at Bear Mountain Resort. Ontario’s Mike Weir  beat out an international field to win in front of a gallery of 5,300 fans and the verdict was that the event had been a resounding success. What better way to begin a new chapter in the colourful story of Bear Mountain, Vancouver Island’s largest resort development project?

A month earlier things could hardly have been worse. The BC Supreme Court declared the Bear Mountain Master Partnership bankrupt after it been placed under creditor protection at the request of HSBC, its largest secured lender.  The bank was owed $250 million, or over 80% of Bear Mountain’s total debt.  The Court issued a short stay of proceedings to allow the Telus event to be held but for Len Barrie and his colleagues in the Master Partnership, the game was up.

So what does the future hold for the Bear Mountain Resort, its several hundred residents, property owners and other interested parties?  First, it’s clear that HSBC is intent on systematically recouping as much of its debt as possible. It has appointed a new CEO to replace Len Barrie the former NHL player who in 2001, with other investors, purchased 1,235 acres of managed forest land at Skirt Mountain and began the real estate ride of his life.

HSBC and Bear Mountain’s new CEO have much to do in order to realize the resort’s remaining assets at the kind of values that justify the bank’s new level of commitment to the project. Patience, courage and a clear vision will be essential. There are some big decisions to be made in addition to the myriad day-to-day issues associated with a major real estate development that, according to HSBC, has been defaulting on its debt repayments since 2008.

The stakes are high, not only for HSBC but also for its current residents. Most bought into the Bear Mountain dream during a rising real estate market and, for a while, watched their investment make rapid and considerable gains. They were delighted to be part of the largest, most ambitious and most talked-about master planned community on Vancouver Island.  Len Barrie is best described as a ‘force of nature’ (though others might use a less flattering epithet). His personality helped feed the hype that extended from Victoria to Calgary and beyond. The old adage that home values in a master planned community command a 10% premium over comparable homes in ‘unplanned’ neighbourhoods seemed conservative once Mr. Barrie’s sales team began talking.

The best master planned communities exude consistent higher-than-average quality, well maintained and managed amenities and common areas – and, most importantly, a clear, compelling vision that stands the test of time.  These places attract discerning owners; ones that are proud of their homes and their neighbourhood and who become important ambassadors – and, in reality, the best sales people – for the community as a whole. All well and good when the sun is shining and demand outstrips supply.  However, these same folk react badly when they feel abandoned or let down by the community’s developer.
Its once-proud property owners watched Bear Mountain slip into bankruptcy while detractors rubbed their hands in glee. The information vacuum was filled quickly by rumor and innuendo.  An unfinished highway interchange, essential to the long-term future of Bear Mountain and dependent on it as a source of funding, became the ‘bridge to nowhere’ while Len Barrie’s increasingly threadbare claims to have found a new purchaser for Bear Mountain further stretched the credibility of the community. Even tactics that in different circumstances would go unnoticed were pounced upon; some heavily discounted condominium prices, promoted by the Bear Mountain sales team, were described in the press as ‘a fire sale’.  This, while other condo sellers in Victoria were quietly raising their asking prices.

Now is the time to fill the vacuum with facts – and a new vision for the future. When will the vital interchange be completed? How will development over the medium and long-term be planned and executed? How will the vacant commercial property be tackled? Do the two golf courses and the hotel have sustainable futures? What will happen to Robert Quigg’s stalled Capella development, a component of the resort?  We know that the new Bear Mountain management team will have to address these questions, and many more, as it markets the property to potential purchasers and developers.  Keeping the residents informed and winning their confidence in the future will be just as important.

Perhaps the biggest conundrum for HSBC is how to maintain Bear Mountain’s standard of quality – set during the good times – while generating cash from the sale of its parts and maximizing the absorption of its building lots.  As a friend of mine said to me recently “Once a community of this size lowers its standards by chasing the market downwards, its brand never recovers”.

With the patience and support of HSBC, Bear Mountain’s new CEO has the opportunity to create a vision and a strategic plan that are forward looking and capable of repositioning the master planned community as among the most desirable of its kind in North America.  The success of the Telus World Skins Game and the positive news coverage that it generated must have been a great relief to the dispirited residents and battered investors in Bear Mountain.  Now the challenge for HSBC and the new CEO is to build on that.

America’s New International Airport

America’s first new major airport in 15 years opens on May 23rd.  Northwest Florida International Beaches Airport will be a perfect Florida Panhandle gateway for retirees, or so the

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. Almost ready for its inaugral flight.

St Joe Company (NYSE: JOE) hopes, having spent a decade planning, lobbying for and executing the relocation of Panama City Airport. The ‘old’ airport (though it didn’t seem particularly decrepit when you walked through its bright, airy arrivals lounge) was environmentally constrained.  What that really meant was that Southwest Airlines couldn’t land there because the runways were too short and impossible to lengthen.

JOE’s executives had studied the economic impact of the new Fort Myers airport (eventually called Southwest Florida International Airport) when it opened in 1983. The housing boom that transformed Lee and Collier counties had been driven by the new airport. In 1999, a similar ‘inducer’ was deemed essential if the St Joe Company (formerly the St Joe Paper Company) was going to raise the value of its low-priced forest land from a couple of thousand dollars an acre to the mouth-watering prices that Florida developers had become used to.

Only slightly less of a mouthful. Southwest Florida International Airport.

Flights into Panama City and Fort Walton Beach on Delta’s turbo-prop ‘commuter’ planes were expensive, unreliable and often time-consuming.  Most people drove to the beach, from Birmingham, Atlanta and even as far away as Nashville. But for JOE’s plans to take flight, it had to open up the Panhandle to a much larger market than the Deep South.

New York, Chicago, the Midwest. These were the kind of markets that could drive the Company’s new, burgeoning real estate business. What better means of accessing them than to provide America’s most efficient low-coast air carrier, Southwest Airlines, with a runway long enough to land its Boeing 737 jets and to underwrite several years worth of its daily flights?

And that is exactly what the St Joe Company did.  No matter that, in the process, it built and then dismantled a sophisticated and highly respected real estate development business. It acquired Arvida, a south Florida home builder that had delivered  a very successful new community in Broward County called Weston (pop. 62,000).  It recruited some of the brightest real estate executives in America to create and manage places like Watercolor (a more profitable and, some would say, better planned community than Seaside, next door), Southwood (an increasingly popular Tallahassee suburb) and WindMark Beach, nestling on the edge of St Joseph’s Bay in Gulf County.

The recession (and perhaps more than a little hubris) led to JOE’s retreat from the real estate development business.  Throughout 2006, it became apparent that the market for second homes in Florida was receding like a Gulf tide. Just like many of its customers, the St Joe Company had become addicted to luxury beach homes built on lots that, when they were released, attracted so many purchasers that they were sold out in a few hours.  Lucky owners saw their beautifully serviced home sites, situated in expertly-designed communities, rise rapidly in value long before a home plan was approved by JOE’s fastidious design board. Property speculation flourished as cheap money and ‘creative’ lending practices, underpinned by helpful capital gains rules, enabled everyone to ‘play the market’ by buying and flipping lots before any construction costs were incurred.

A carefully staged scene at WaterColor. The demographic that JOE once attracted...

Then things changed.  Lot owners, fearing a ‘market adjustment’ and keen to ‘cash out’, found they had to compete for purchasers for the first time in many years. Worse still, prices began to soften just as the supply of new lots reached its peak.  At the St Joe Company, construction was slowed – but not fast enough to keep pace with plummeting sales receipts.  The company began a lengthy correction that has lasted four years, closing down all development activity, outsourcing resort management, cutting staffing to the bone and transforming itself for the second time in a decade; this time into a wholesaler of land.

Boomers at play. The demographic that JOE will be delighted to see in the future...

The northwest Florida market for luxury second homes has withered to a shadow of its former self.  What the Panhandle needs now, and in large numbers, are jobs and retirees.  Hundreds of lots remain vacant awaiting the construction of new homes. We know that the St Joe Company, relying exclusively on the orderly sale of its sub-divided land, will not be building anything, so a new breed of developers will be needed to help unlock value for JOE’s shareholders. And, if the Panhandle is going to be transformed from a seasonal tourist economy to one that is more sustainable, then a core of higher-paying year-round employment is essential.

The new airport is considered by many to be critical to the future of the Panhandle. The formula is simple; cheap flights fill beds at the beach and happy visitors are tomorrow’s residents.  Florida’s sun and sugar-sand will always attract individuals and businesses that have grown tired of long grey winters, state income tax and labor laws, so all that’s needed is decent transportation,  infrastructure – and relatively cheap, affordable homes.

This last – and vital – component has been missing in recent years and must now be delivered in these straightened times if the financially bruised boomer generation is going to make any kind of economic impact on northwest Florida.  JOE is betting that, as the economy improves, retirees will once more head for the sunshine, preferring the natural, more rural, charms of northwest Florida to the crowded beaches further south .

The St Joe Company's future takes flight - with a little help from Southwest Airlines.

The Airport has been carefully located to provide, among other things, plenty of industrial and commercial land for businesses able to exploit this new transportation hub.  There should also be plenty of land for workforce housing, as long as it is priced realistically.  Some smart people with equally smart money have made a significant bet that the St Joe Company is perfectly placed to benefit from the economic growth that the new airport is expected to generate.  It’s going to be intriguing to see, therefore, whether Northwest Florida International Beaches Airport proves to be the ‘inducer’ that changes the face of Florida’s last quiet coastline or an expensive flop with a tongue-twisting name.

A Community’s Legacy

There’s no better reward from real estate development than feeling that one has been involved in creating a legacy; something which is for the greater good and that will provide for decades, rather than years. Many of us at the St. Joe Company were privileged to plan and participate in several legacy projects and one of those has recently come to fruition.

Earlier this month, the citizens of Port St. Joe, Florida and its surrounding communities celebrated the opening of the Sacred Heart Hospital On The Gulf, built by Ascension Health with money and land gifted to it by the St Joe Company.  While the Company’s contribution was crucial, the financial and emotional support of the local community and the leadership of its politicians were essential in completing the project.

When my family and I arrived in Gulf County in 2000, Port St Joe’s small, privately-managed rural hospital seemed on its last legs.  The care of its doctors, nurses and technicians was unimpeachable but the building in which they practiced was outdated and in poor condition. Emergency services were offered when finances allowed.  The only consistent sources of emergency treatment were the local paramedics who operated the town’s ambulance service or the large regional hospital almost an hour away.

The response of the St. Joe Company, the largest local landowner and a public company with ambitions to develop it’s beach front property, was to assume a leadership role in improving local health care.  The existing hospital was obsolete, its finances murky and its services insufficient to meet the basic needs of the town’s residents and growing number of visitors.  The St Joe Company, with enlightened self-interest, deemed a new, properly managed hospital to be the only realistic alternative.

Some local people disagreed, hoping that a band aid would be enough to keep the old hospital open.  Various ‘white knights’ arrived in Port St Joe, ready to save the hospital from closure by offering dubious financial remedies that inevitably required considerable additional cash injections from the local tax-payers.  As a St Joe Company executive, I witnessed at first hand the unseemly and exploitative side of Florida’s rural healthcare industry as the ‘white knights’ quickly turned out to be sharks preying on the hopes and fears of the local community.

Many in the community realized that an alliance with the St Joe Company and Ascension Health, while contraversial, could provide a realistic alternative to the hucksters. A group of community leaders was assembled, a bus was hired and we all made the trip to the Sacred Heart Hospital in Walton County, ninety or so miles away. The visit was enlightening, emotional and above all, unifying as we toured the facility and listened carefully as doctors and nurses talked about the benefits of high quality, consistent health care delivered in a special place.

That trip took place about five years ago.  Much effort has been expended and patience stretched in the intervening years but earlier this month our journey to Walton County yielded more than any of us on the bus could have dared wish for; a brand new hospital for Port St Joe and its surrounding communities, high-skilled rewarding jobs that are attracting back former residents and the individual satisfaction of having helped create a legacy for later generations.

From Port St. Joe to Vancouver: Flags and Feelings

Port St. Joe, Florida (pop. 4,750) overlooks the Gulf of Mexico and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Vancouver, British Columbia is consistently voted one of the world’s most livable places and is the host of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. What could these two cities possibly have in common?

Vancouver has been immersed in its Olympics, the culmination of several years of intricate planning and substantial expenditure.  The tension and expectation building amongst organizers and, in more recent months, the community as a whole, was released in spectacular and emotional fashion at the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

It took over 30 minutes for the 3,500-strong school choir to take their place in front of the O-zone stage

I recorded the event because, on the same evening, I was with Gabriel, my 12-year old son, visiting the Richmond O-zone, a community gathering place in a city that is part of greater Vancouver but has a proud character of its own.  Richmond’s civic center is surrounded by an impressive 100-acre indoor/outdoor recreational complex that  had been converted into a series of spaces celebrating the Games.

A giant screen was erected to provide O-zone visitors with a ‘live feed’ to the Opening Ceremony later in the evening.  In the meantime, the Richmond organizers had the brilliant – if somewhat ambitious – idea of assembling its entire school district to form a 3,500-strong pupils’ choir.  If every child brought with them two or three close relatives, that would ensure an audience of at least 7,000.  In fact, it felt as though at least 15,000 people attended the event.

The Olympic Opening Ceremony, piped live to the Richmond O-zone.

And this is how Vancouver 2010 suddenly took me back to Port St. Joe. Richmond’s O-zone was energized by a palpable sense of family and the accompanying emotional charge of a diverse assembly of kids, teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  The Olympics was the perfect catalyst for families to come together and celebrate their kids’ endeavor. I had seen it happen many times in the little town of Port St. Joe, at street parades,  community events and under the Friday night lights of the High School football game. This was the first such truly community-wide coming-together that I had experienced since arriving in Canada in 2007.

The Games provided the excuse, as well as the electricity.  Everyone at the Richmond O-zone seemed to feel connected to what was about to happen at the Opening Ceremony a few miles away in downtown Vancouver.  Richmond’s kids started their concert with the national anthem, Oh Canada!  It’s a stirring song with a powerful melody and I welcomed the opportunity to take-in the atmosphere. As I turned around I saw something that has come to epitomize these Games;  pride in what Canada stands for and the importance of the national flag – emotions that, once again, took me back to Port St. Joe.   Behind me had been sitting a group of elderly Punjabi women, dressed for the weather but unmistakable in their traditional clothing.  Now they were standing, hands on heart, stretching between them a full-size Canadian flag.

Flying the flag in 2001, at the St Joe/Arvida office in Port St Joe

I recalled, very clearly, eight and a half years ago, walking down Reid Avenue, Port St Joe’s main street, and seeing a large, folded American flag in the display cabinet of the local auction room. I bought the flag and immediately hung it on the front of the St Joe office where  I worked; a visceral response to the previous day’s terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Throughout our little town, others did likewise. And now here, in Vancouver, in entirely different circumstances, people were finding flags and waving them, some without thought, others as important symbols in which they had vested a new – or renewed – pride.

Everyone in town knows a kid in the Homecoming Parade.

Kids; the flag and what it stands for; singing; coming together as a community; these are  what little Port St Joe and big city Vancouver have in common. It may take an Olympic Games in a place the size of Vancouver and not much more than the Homecoming Parade in a town like Port St Joe, but the emotions generated are heartfelt and welcome and, for me, link these places across thousands of miles.