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.
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.
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!