Having completed the work, local economic development officials hope to be on more competitive ground.
A community celebration Monday completed the initial effort under a Competitive Florida Partnership grant with city and county economic development stakeholders transitioning into the next phase of filling in the vision of a more economically-competitive community.
The celebration completed roughly six months of work under the grant, an effort from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
The city of Port St. Joe was one of four communities selected to participate in the pilot program.
The layered aim of the Competitive Florida Partnership was to extend the growth in Florida’s economy over the past four or five years into rural and smaller communities which may be experiencing economic benefits in scattershot fashion.
Since the cratering of the real estate market and slowdown in the economy in the middle of the last decade, Florida has added 600,000 private sector jobs, seen the unemployment rate drop more than two percentage points and become one of the top states in economic growth, said Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the DEO, who attended Monday’s event at Capital City Bank.
But, he said, not all communities, particularly small rural communities, have been equal.
“We now have some of the highest growth in the country and our goal is to reach out to smaller communities and use the resources of the state to be part of that growth,” Panuccio said.
In particular, the goal was to “map” community assets to identify strengths on which to capitalize and weaknesses toward which more must be focused.
In mapping those assets, the hope was to ensure the history of a community would be continued and studied well into the future, Panuccio said.
Staff from the DEO, along with officials from other communities in the pilot program, visited Port St. Joe and Gulf County to assist in the mapping of assets, applying new eyes and new ideas.
The community’s strengths quickly become clear to study groups, evidenced by comments made during a visioning exercise in the spring.
Stand outs included the Gulf/Franklin campus of Gulf Coast State College and its host of educational offerings and Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf, providing jobs and excellent health care as well as “security for those wishing to relocate to Gulf County,” said Bill Killingsworth of the DEO, whose office oversaw the Competitive Florida Partnership.
Also standing out was the historic downtown flavor of Port St. Joe, as well as parks and other recreational opportunities.
The historic nature of downtown, Killingsworth added, has only been enhanced with the relocation of the Cape San Blas Lighthouse.
“Not too many people have a historic lighthouse in the downtown,” Killingsworth said. “That lighthouse is a cool addition to the city.”
And, most of all considering the effort centered on economic development, the Port of Port St. Joe and the mission to create an operational port at Florida’s only undeveloped deepwater port.
“Those assets are the things that make a community unique,” Killingsworth said. “Leveraging those assets has to be unique to them.
“This program gives control back to the community and lets them plan their future. And all these assets have Port St. Joe poised to create a sustainable future.”
In addition to identifying assets, the work also focused on collaboration and how county/city officials could work together and with state resources, to strengthen and capitalize upon those assets.
One example of ideas emerging from the grant work involves the Port Theatre.
Through education from state officials about grant possibilities, an effort is underway to secure ownership of the theater through historic preservation grant in order to create a performing arts center.
“That theater can be a real diamond to anchor downtown,” Killingsworth said.
What the community provided the state, the DEO in particular, was an understanding of how state resources can best be deployed to ignite and foment economic development.
The four pilot communities, in effect, established a database for ideas that worked and didn’t, strengths and weaknesses in economic development efforts, upon which future efforts may draw.
“You guys are paying back by adding to us” (and what we do), Killingsworth said. “We want to grow and expand the resources of the state to assist other communities.”
The work under the Competitive Florida Partnership grant segues into a plan intertwined with the economic development element of the city’s comprehensive plan.
“We have a plan now and we’re getting ready to implement that plan,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Mel Magidson. “Hopefully that plan will bear fruit in economic development, particularly for the pet project, the port.”
The plan that emerged from the Competitive Florida Partnership has been submitted to state stakeholders for comments, which are expected to be returned to the city soon, said city attorney Tom Gibson.
“This has been a wonderful experience,” said Gail Alsobrook, executive director of the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency. “The asset mapping report is an excellent tool.”