National Geographic : 2006 Jul
the St. Joe Company, Florida's former paper-and timber giant that he has transformed into one of the largest coastal developers in the nation. Rummell beat the boomers to the big 6-0 by a couple of months. Tanned, fit, and with a wreath of short-cropped gray hair, he could be George C. Scott's laid-back younger brother. "We think there are enormous numbers of people getting to my age who have flexibility in their lifestyles," Rummell says. "They're not staying in Cincin nati 12 months of the year. They're looking for warmer climates, particularly Florida. It's a proven track record for 75 years." In fact, quips Jerry Ray, St. Joe's VP for cor porate communications, the entire state of Pennsylvania-that's 12 million people-will be moving to Florida in the next 25 years, accord ing to census projections. To meet that demand, Rummell and his team are turning vast tracts of pines into tony resort developments, aimed at feeding the hearts and minds of wealthy, nature loving second-home buyers. within a ten-minute stroll, protect natural areas like the beach and lake and make them commu nity amenities, get people to park their cars and leave them idle for their entire stay. Such concepts were reinforced after Rummell took a tour of Mississippi beach towns devas tated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year. Rummell was surprised to see newer gas stations and grocery stores relatively unscathed while the older homes and cottages got hammered. "It was apparent that the quality of construction makes an enormous difference," he says. With more than 300,000 acres in the coastal zone, a market capitalization of 4.5 billion dol lars, and plenty of political clout, St. Joe can do what other developers only dream about. In one section of Gulf County, the company is moving 13 miles of U.S. Highway 98, which currently runs through Joe lands right along the Gulf, a few miles inland. The public gets a new flood-protected four lane and the longest shoreside bike trail in the state, while St. Joe gets miles of secluded The good news is that marine systems can recover to a surprising degree if given the chance. So how do you squeeze all those people into a backwater chunk of Florida, once dubbed "the forgotten coast," without destroying the natural beauty that draws people to the area in the first place? The trick is planning, Rummell says, mas ter planning, to be exact. At their showplace resort of WaterColor, about 40 miles west of Panama City, Jerry Ray proudly pointed out how far back the houses and the trademark Water Color Inn-which looks like a large, tastefully done lifeguard station-are set behind the sug ary dunes. Natural areas full of native Florida species, such as sand pines, saw palmettos, and sweet bay magnolias, are laced with biking and hiking trails that sweep around a natural coastal lake, forming a buffer zone. The houses, built like quaint bomb shelters, are designed in what the company calls Cracker Modern, or where red neck Florida meets rich, tasteful Nantucket. While it's more spread out than the groundbreaking New Urbanism development of Seaside-the idyllic backdrop for The Truman Show just next door-many of the concepts are the same: Make it walkable with everything one could need 82 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC . JULY 2006 beachfront acreage. In Bay County, the company has donated 4,000 acres to build a controversial regional airport to service its future homeown ers, while setting aside almost 10,000 acres as a conservation buffer zone around nearby West Bay, important habitat for migratory songbirds such as scarlet tanagers and Kentucky warblers. Not everyone is thrilled with St. Joe's vision. Environmental groups recently won a tempo rary injunction against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for granting the company an unprece dented permit to develop nearly 50,000 acres on the shores of three coastal bays that would destroy 1,500 acres of wetlands, even though the company had promised to mitigate that loss by creating or enhancing more wetlands elsewhere. "Wetlands are not widgets," says Melanie Shephardson, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that filed the suit. "They serve different func tions. Just setting aside some acreage and buffers might sound good, but at the end of the day you have to make sure that these bays, with all their species diversity, are not going to be harmed."