The Gulf County area is in financial ruin. Make no mistake about it. Just from my short few days in town, I can look around and see that things need to change if this area is going to prosper. There is no doubt in my mind that the town will survive. It always has, and always will. The people that were born and raised here know how to survive in lean times. It is the prosper part that I want to focus on. A small group of local business owners that decide to focus on the larger picture of the community could make a huge difference, if they are willing to take that first step.
Jobs are always the biggest issue for every small town. Businesses are created and they hire workers. Workers who are treated well, paid decently, and appreciated for what they do are generally happy. Promise job security in an economy like this and they will love the business that they work for. Now, do the opposite. Lay off good local workers and hire illegal immigrants who work at half the normal wage. Now the business has twice as many workers for the same pay. Profits go up and the business grows but you lose the support of the town in the process. This is the point at which the business has switched its focus from the community to its own personal gains. It is a dagger buried deep in the back of the every person that was born and raised here. Welcome to the business world of Port St. Joe.
This town has grown and boomed from its close ties with the shrimp and fish industry. In recent years though, businesses like Woods Fisheries and Raffield's, which were staples in the economy here, have closed their doors to local workers. Instead of taking care of their own personal community, they have decided to hire illegal immigrants to do the work so that they could improve their own profits. Times are hard. Businesses as well as the people of this town are struggling, but that is no excuse to turn your back on the people of your city so that you can ensure the survival of your business. You need this town, just as much as this town needs you. Maybe more.
If I was to walk through this area as an outsider, I would never notice what horrible shape the local economy is in. From the tourist prospective, this is an amazing small town. The community is filled with a happy and friendly people. It is a welcoming community and a first visit always warrants a return visit. Tourists cannot get enough of the beautiful area that brings them back to a slower time in history. A time when people cared about each other and the time on the clock wasn't so important. I am no outsider though. I was born and raised in this area. I know the people. I know the attitude. I see the struggle in the economy here, and I can see the worry in the people's faces.
While a tourist would not realize this, many people of this town have resorted to working in other cities for a decent wage to support their family, who loyally remains here. Labor jobs just aren't available here like they used to be. The Port St. Joe Paper Mill was one business lost that crippled this town. Countless townspeople lived and grew their family with the pay and support of that mill. Where once a giant stood bellowing a white smoke into the sky, now only low brush and remnants of roads remain. As I ride over the bridge, I can still see the tall stacks of the mill. I see the trucks lined up to the right, waiting to be emptied of the long pines that they carry. To this day, I still look long and hard down the Industrial Road for any log trucks that might not see me as I pass. The ghosts still linger. Only the jobs and the security of those jobs have moved on. We need industrial growth to bring back those that are forced to find jobs elsewhere. The question is what kind of growth?
There is lots of talk about a shipbuilding company taking over the old mill property and starting a new operation. Many believe that this is the answer. I'm not so sure. As a Navy Sailor, I have experienced ship yards on two different occasions in San Diego, CA. On both occasions, my ship was in dry dock for almost a year. I have come to learn how they operate and I know the pros and cons associated with them. The largest issue I saw was the surrounding area. The area outside the yards is infested with drugs and crime. Park your car on the street and it is almost guaranteed to be broken into or stolen while you are gone. Methamphetamine, cocaine, and a whole assortment of other drugs run rampant in this area as well. Keep in mind that these are just observations from another area, but also learn from the mistakes of others. Prevention is so much more productive. Once a drug problem exists, it is almost impossible to eradicate.
Keep a close eye on this business and their operations. Just because they are from the Panhandle doesn't mean they have the interests of Port St. Joe at heart. Just like any other large corporation, it is the almighty dollar that they are looking at and it will become a job in itself to keep them honest. Hire from this community instead of bringing in laborers from anywhere else, including Panama City. This town needs the jobs, not the business. Support us and our town if you want our support for your business profits.
Others are looking outside the area for help. Some hope that changes on the Federal level will bring about an economic change here. Growing up here, I have never seen any large change from the presidency of the country that made a difference in this community. Sure laws change. Taxes go up, costs go up, but the federal government has made no change that has influenced economic growth in my home. This town doesn't need anything from the outside world. Obamacare or Romney's economic recovery plans won't mean anything for this town if the people of this town lose faith in the community. This town only needs for the locally-owned, locally-ran businesses and business owners to band together and focus on making a change. Instead of a new truck for the business, why not use the current fleet for another year and invest in a community project? Use the power you possess as community leaders to influence the tides of the town. Force out the businesses that hire illegal workers over local townsfolk for financial gain. Grow this town and bring back the vibrancy that it once held. Leave a legacy for Gulf County.
The town lives on. Always will. As a people, we are resilient and giving up is not something we do. We may struggle, but we move on to other means of income and survival. We do what we must to make ends meet. That drive coupled together with our ability to love and take care of one another is what keeps our community alive. That is the Gulf County that I grew up in.
Port St. Joe