Got Land? Give it away!

Lets say that you have a million acres of land at your disposal.  That your plan is to raise its value from hundreds of dollars an acre to thousands. Your land is in a beautiful but remote area.  And it’s devoid of roads, waterlines and sewer.  What do you do next?

A Panhandle sugar sand Beach

A Panhandle sugar sand Beach

In 1997, Florida’s St Joe Company addressed this question head-on.  It had sold its solitary paper mill but still owned 1 million acres of land. Its Board was now intent to harvest  value from real estate instead of pinewoods; especially the miles and miles of Florida beachfront St Joe owned.  One problem: the land was located in the eastern Panhandle, the Sunshine State’s slowest growing, least known corner.  Building lots and finished homes were cheaper there than anywhere else in Florida for good reason; it was beautiful but inaccessible, rural and light-years behind the rest of the State in terms of it’s amenities and infrastructure. It was the ‘Forgotten Coast’; the ‘Redneck Riviera’.

St Joseph Bay, Florida

St Joseph Bay, Florida

So what did St Joe do?  It began giving away its land.  Not to people like you and me but to organizations capable of changing the face of the region.  First, to Florida Department of Transport who needed land to widen the single highway that connected the Panhandle communities.  Then to Ascension Health to build a new hospital next to the beach.  And then, in hundreds of acres, to the local Airport Authority to replace its small, environmentally challenged facility in Panama City.

The company was not content to be simply a catalyst for change, standing by as the regional economy reacted to St. Joe’s investment in real estate development. No, it was going to lead growth by inducing infrastructure investment in the only ways it knew how; with lots of low value land, some money and strong community leadership. And one other essential thing – patience.

Next year, the new Panama City Airport will open, providing new routes into the region. And not content to rest there, the St Joe Company has entered into a financial arrangement with Southwest Airlines to provide low-cost flights.  Improved four-lane highways will speed arriving visitors to some of America’s finest beaches. Ascension Health will complete another hospital on land donated by St Joe, this time in Gulf County.  Patience has been stretched to the limit by a deep and painful recession. The St Joe Company is a very different, much smaller and less ambitious organization than it was five years ago but the region in which its remaining land is located has changed markedly and within a few months will be accessible to the world in a way that no one would have dreamed about in 1997.

Sunset on the Panhandle of Florida

Sunset on the Panhandle of Florida

And what of the land owner? How has it benefited from its largesse?  By one measure, its land value has risen from just over $2,000 per acre in 1999 to a current $5,000 per acre.  Most of its remaining 580,000 acres are within 15 miles of the beaches.  For the last 10 years, it has worked diligently winning the right to build about 40,000 home sites on a small proportion of its land, served by the first new airport to be built in the United States since 9/11, new roads and first-class healthcare.  Patience may be a virtue but, in this case it seems, it is about to offer its own rewards.

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