Port St. Joe Ventures Once Again Into Deep Waters
Rebirth of a PortPort St. Joe ventures once again into deep watersBy Tabitha Yang
Once a boomtown and a candidate for the capital of Florida, Port St. Joe now is one of the state’s smaller towns, with a population of about 3,600. Situated at the edge of St. Joseph Bay, it has all the charm of a coastal village, with an annual shrimp boil held at the St. Joseph Bay Preserves and an Easter egg hunt held every year at 8th Street Park.
The area’s pristine coastline and new resorts attract visitors from areas far and wide. But while tourists may enjoy vacationing there in the summer, Port St. Joe’s residents suffer from underemployment, a condition common to all of Gulf County. In fact, a recent study sponsored by the Gulf Coast Work Force Board revealed that 67 percent of Gulf County residents are underemployed, meaning the skills they have and training they’ve received exceed the amount called for by their current jobs. An additional 18.7 percent of the working-age population in Gulf County is not working due to unemployment, retirement, disabilities or an inability to find a job that suits their skills and training.
Over the years, companies have come and gone, but no one has really done much to solve the problem.
A paper mill that opened in the 1930s and had helped sustain the local economy closed in 1998 and has not been replaced. The town has a fine deep seawater port, which had been used most recently to ship paper items. But after the mill closed, the port closed too.
Now, a decade after the port’s closing, the St. Joe Company is stepping in with a plan to reopen the port and revitalize Port St. Joe.
The company has been building various residential developments in the area, as well as resorts and industrial parks and was instrumental in bringing a new hospital to the area. This past December, the company signed an agreement allowing the Port Authority of St. Joe to lease a 63-acre site on St. Joseph Bay, to be combined with 68 acres of contiguous port-owned property. The agreement will allow the port to reopen and expand its capacity.
The site won’t be ready to receive ships for an estimated three years, said Port Director Tommy Pitts, but the company has also signed a lease with the port authority for a smaller, 20-acre site with a 1,000-foot bulkhead. That smaller site was scheduled to become operational by late February or early March.
As for the types of goods that will be shipped in and out of the port, Pitts said several companies have sent out letters of inquiry indicating an interest in using the port.
“Some are for industrial supplies like aggregate,” he said. “We’ve had numerous inquiries about renewable energy … The types of inquiries I’ve gotten have ranged from wood chips and wood pellets to biodiesel and ethanol.”
This could be good news for Port St. Joe, as reopening the port could create new jobs for the people who live there, as well as grow the town by bringing in new residents.
“Our goal is to create well-paying jobs for people now,” Pitts said. “The long-term goal is so our kids can grow up and can get good jobs. That’s not the case now; they have to leave.”
A number of Gulf County officials are likewise pleased at the prospect of job creation and an economic boost for their area.
“We think it can be the economic engine that drives not only the city and county, but the region,” said Gulf County Commissioner Warren Yeager.
Local businessmen, including real estate agents, agree.
“The feeling is that it will provide a certain amount of economic stimulus for the area,” said Gloria Salinard, association executive of the Realtors Association of Franklin and Southern Gulf Counties. “There will be employees, of course, that will be needed, and they will be moving into the area and hopefully buying homes.”
In addition to leasing the land for the port, the St. Joe Company has entered into an agreement for the Genesee & Wyoming rail line to operate the Apalachicola Northern Railroad under a 10-year lease with three 10-year renewals. The 96-mile railroad connects Port St. Joe with the national rail system in Chattahoochee and would allow goods that arrive on ships in Port St. Joe to be loaded onto freight trains and transferred anywhere in America.
Jerry Ray, senior vice president of external affairs for the St. Joe Company, said his company’s interests and the interests of the community overlap.
“We’re looking for ways to create economic activity,” he said. “We’re land developers, and so where there are more people with more jobs, they’re going to want more houses and townhouses. They’re going to want more places to shop. We make our living by servicing the needs of people in their daily lives. So if there’s more economic activity, they will need the things we do.”
There are other major ports in the area, most notably in Panama City, but Pitts does not anticipate any conflicts with them.
“We do not see ourselves competing with our sister ports,” he said. “We have a very good working relationship with Port Panama City. The port authorities have entered into an agreement to develop port activities in the region.”
Ray views the reopening of the port as a revitalization of something that once made this small town great.
“This is a port that’s coming back,” he said. “It’s part of the heart and soul of Port St. Joe.”
A Glimpse of Port St. Joe’s History
- Nearly 200 years ago, the boomtown of St. Joseph, which sat on the same land that Port St. Joe occupies today, was reputed to be “the most sinful town in the country.”
- The town had grown at a breakneck pace after being founded by disgruntled settlers from Apalachicola. The settlers had left that town in the 1830s after the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the Forbes Company as owner of the land they had lived on. Angry that the company was going to charge them money for land they had cultivated and built homes on, the settlers packed up their belongings and founded the town of St. Joseph as a rival to Apalachicola, said Florida Ranger Bill Wilkinson, who works at the Constitution Convention Museum in Port St. Joe.
- Reports of the day put the number of residents in St. Joseph at 4,000 to 6,000, although most likely the permanent population never exceeded 2,000. A port town, it boasted a number of saloons, theaters and billiard halls and a “sinful” reputation.
- Florida’s first railroad, developed by promoters of St. Joseph, connected the town St. Joseph with nearby Lake Wimico, located several miles east of modern-day Port St. Joe, allowing steamboats coming down the Apalachicola River to take a detour at the lake and transfer their goods to freight trains headed to St. Joe. The goods could then be loaded onto ships in the St. Joseph harbor and sent to destinations far and wide.
- The town’s prosperity didn’t last long. St. Joseph couldn’t keep up with Apalachicola, and the railroad foundered. The town turned into a resort area for a few years before its population was decimated by an outbreak of yellow fever in 1841. A devastating hurricane destroyed most of what was left of the town in 1844.
- The town known today as Port St. Joe sprung up in the early 1900s when a man named Terrell H. Stone moved to the area in 1904 to start a turpentine works. An abundance of pine trees made the area an ideal spot for his business.
- In 1909, the Apalachicola Northern Railroad was extended to the town. Shipment of export lumber, naval stores and cotton began in 1910 and Port
- St. Joe was chartered as a city in 1913.