Marketing Small-Town Florida: Port. St. Joe

Matt Fleck, who loves to sail, scuba dive and fish, has found the perfect place to do all three. Now his job is to introduce thousands of others to the place he calls paradise — Port St. Joe.

Selling Small-Town Charm In Port St. Joe, Matt Fleck is leading the rebirth of a ‘real’ Florida community By Buddy Nevins Originally published in the Oct/Nov 2010 issue of 850 Magazine

Matt Fleck, who loves to sail, scuba dive and fish, has found the perfect place to do all three. Now his job is to introduce thousands of others to the place he calls paradise — Port St. Joe.

Fleck, 44, is executive director of the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency, which is in charge of morphing the early 20th-century mill town into a 21st-century destination for anyone seeking an escape from the big city.

He says the 3,700-resident community sells itself. “Port St. Joe is a ‘real’ place,” Fleck said. “When there are so many cookie-cutter developments across Florida that try so hard to create a quaint, small-town atmosphere, it’s very refreshing to discover a place that has always had that charm.”

Fleck isn’t a small-town native. “Port St Joe is definitely the smallest town I have ever lived in,” he said.

A lifelong Floridian, he was born in Melbourne, on the state’s Atlantic coast. His family moved to Tallahassee when he was a teenager.

“When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be an architect,” Fleck said. “But after working with an architectural firm during junior college, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to build.”

Because of good grades, Fleck got a Bright Futures scholarship from the Florida Lottery. He also got a merit scholarship from the Association of General Contractors of Northwest Florida. Those two grants enabled him to enroll at the University of Florida.

“I still had to work full time to pay the rent, and there were lots of night classes, but I graduated with high honors from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in building construction,” said Fleck, whose first job out of college in 1991 was construction project manager of development for the West Florida Cancer Center in Pensacola.

He began managing the design and construction of a wide range of developments across urban Florida — in Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Naples. He helped build offices, industrial projects, utility infrastructure and military facilities. He helped build multi-family residential complexes, shopping centers and marinas. And there were health care projects, which is where he met his wife, Karie, while working on a Pensacola hospital.

“She was in nursing school, and I was a hot-shot project manager building hospitals,” Fleck said. “We connected instantly with common interests and our shared love of the Florida coastal lifestyle.”

In 2005, Fleck had an offer that would combine the unique coastal lifestyle of the Forgotten Coast with the chance to develop a mixed-used complex in Port St. Joe.

“The St. Joe Company offered me the opportunity to manage the major redevelopment of the former paper mill site here in town into a world-class destination including marinas, residential, retail, restaurants and parks integrated into the fabric of the existing historic town,” Fleck said.

But when the real estate market tanked in the recession, the project was put on the shelf.

The town was struggling.

Originally an industrial and shipping town with a deepwater port and lumber mills that employed thousands, Port St. Joe had fallen on hard times in the 1990s when the main mill closed.

But the town still had a lot going for it.

There is history. Nearby are the ruins of “old” Port St. Joe, the site of Florida’s biggest city in the 1830s, and a state museum and park where Florida’s first constitution was drafted in 1839.

There also are beautiful beaches and all kinds of other recreational possibilities. And the town is filled with quaint, sturdy buildings and plenty of vacant land near downtown.

Port St. Joe needed somebody who could improve on its attributes and tell its story.

Fleck and his ideas for revamping the town were already known from his work on the defunct project. He not only had a wide range of experience with development, he also respected what was special about Port St. Joe.

Rather than see him leave, the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency board hired him as executive director in late 2008.

“I recognized the opportunity to implement at least some of the redevelopment concepts that I had already invested so much effort into,” Fleck said.

The redevelopment agency emphasizes the aesthetics of the waterfront town. Over the past few years, about $325,000 was granted to private businesses to overhaul their buildings and signage.

The refurbishing of U.S. Highway 98, which threads through the heart of town, began early in 2010 with the help of the Florida Department of Transportation. Turn lanes are being improved, and easier access is being provided to the downtown and waterfront. The DOT also provided beautification grants of more than $580,000. Palms were planted. Decorative benches and lighting were added. Storm drains were improved. Sidewalks were redone, and brick paver crosswalks were added.

The Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency also partnered with Progress Energy to bury existing power lines in parts of the downtown area.

The idea is that if downtown is spruced up, it will attract more tenants. The hope is that the changes will entice drivers along busy U.S. 98 to stop, visit, shop and eat.

There also is a new city commons, additional parking and a monument to the millworkers who are such a big part of Port St. Joe’s history.

Another big change is the opening earlier this year of Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf. The $38 million, 25-bed hospital has an around-the-clock emergency room, surgical and imaging facilities, and a helipad to transport trauma and critically ill patients. The land was donated by The St. Joe Company, and Gulf County voters approved a half-cent sales tax to support indigent care at the hospital.

“Parents and pre-retirees alike have to consider access to quality health care when choosing a place to live,” Fleck said. “I am proud to say that I played a significant role in closing the deal to bring Sacred Heart to Port St. Joe … we got this one right.”

A town does not turn around overnight, and Fleck said he is in it for the long haul. He and his wife — she is the operating-room manager at the new hospital — love the Forgotten Coast amenities, especially the boating. They own an EndeavourCat 34 catamaran and spend a great deal of time on the water. They also own an Internet-based gourmet coffee business, which could be a small-scale model for the type of eco-friendly economic development that Port St. Joe hopes to attract.

All that caffeine keeps Fleck pumped up for the seemingly endless job of selling Port St. Joe. There are meetings with prospective business owners and real estate brokers. There are deals to work out, proposals to sift through, grants to complete, budgets to prepare and, in the end, a whole town to convince that redevelopment is on the right track. It is a small community, so Fleck ends up talking about redevelopment on the sidewalks, in the shops, at restaurants and even at the marina.

Everybody gets the same message: “It’s not hard to sell the potential of this place with its combination of great boating, great beaches and small town charm,” he said.


Has there been any resistance to redevelopment, and if so, why? The only resistance to our redevelopment efforts has come from a couple of narrow-minded county commissioners who don’t feel they get any benefit from our efforts in their part of the county … The good news is that the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency is part of the city government and not the county, and the Port St. Joe City Commission is much more progressive and pro-business.

How big a factor is tourism in Port St. Joe’s future? With the recent addition of another hotel, and local B&Bs, it’s become much easier for weekend getaways. Historically our tourist markets have been Tallahassee, Atlanta and Birmingham, but that has been changing rapidly in the past two years to include states like Texas, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. With the recent opening of the new international airport in Panama City, including affordable flights on Southwest Airlines, we expect our target markets to increase tremendously.

It’s 2020 and I am visiting Port St. Joe. What will I see? That’s pretty tough to forecast in such a turbulent economy, but I would expect to see a lot more residents here as new visitors are discovering this wonderful place every day. It might be more important to recognize what you probably won’t see, like high-rise condo buildings or big-box retailers. The community here is pretty protective of the small-town atmosphere and not likely to give in on their strict height restrictions.

Talk a little about your passion for great coffee and your coffee business. Once you get hooked on fresh-roasted, 100-percent arabica coffee, it’s really hard to drink anything less. My wife and I decided to start a micro-roasting company a couple of years back so that we and our friends would always have great coffee. We buy only the highest-quality green coffee beans in bulk, imported from Africa, Costa Rica, Columbia and Indonesia. We roast the beans to order to ensure freshness, and we sell wholesale to coffee shops in the region as well as through the Internet on