Tag Archives: Ascension Health

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  The care of its doctors, nurses and technicians was unimpeachable but the building in which they practiced was outdated and in poor condition.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.

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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.