New eyes often offer new perspective on old sights.
Such was the exercise last week as the Competitive Florida Partnership process began the assessing, or mapping, of the assets that make Port St. Joe well, Port St. Joe.
And if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, having roughly a dozen pairs of new eyeballs focused on the local landscape provided testimony of things maybe many residents take for granted.
The great parks, the beautiful bay, gorgeous beaches and canopies of oaks, pines and palms – new eyes provided a new coat of shellac for the postcard that is Port St. Joe.
“I would love to live here,” said Bob Farley, city manager in White Springs, one of three communities other than Port St. Joe participating in the Department of Economic Opportunity pilot project Competitive Florida Partnership.
“We just don’t have what you have here. I am so impressed with this area. There is a true Florida lifestyle here.”
Farley was among roughly a dozen folks who came from out of town to participate in a Community Asset Mapping Exercise, which is a significant part of the Competitive Florida Partnership process.
The Partnership aims to provide a template for local economic development in a community.
Along with Farley came staff from state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection (an individual involved with considering the port’s application for dredging the ship channel), the Florida Department of Transportation and the Florida Department of State.
Enterprise Florida and Florida’s Great Northwest, quasi-public economic development agencies, were also represented as was the Florida League of Cities and the Capitol Area Action Agency.
“The goal is to bring a fresh perspective to the assets the community has and also provide a resource for ideas from the outside,” said Julie Dennis, program coordinator for the DEO.
Included in that group was Farley from another Competitive Florida Partnership community.
“We try to bring in people from the other communities we are working with,” Dennis said. “They can gain ideas to take back home with them or provide new ideas they have tried at home that worked.”
The group, which included local representatives from the city, Tourist Development Council, Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency, Gulf County Economic Development and Chamber of Commerce, was divided into four teams and sent into the community to assess, photograph and verbally record assets, ranging from parks to education to health care to the waterfront.
After a morning assessing, the teams returned to discuss what they had seen, noting community strengths and suggesting ways to build upon those strengths, offering everything from branding slogans to improvements for the Centennial Building and Constitution Convention Museum.
“This is meant as a brain-storming exercise for the community,” Dennis said. “We had some really good conversations. This is a brain-storming exercise to help the city come up with action plans.”
Some of those action plans are already in black-and-white, as distributed by Marina Pennington, the city’s consultant on planning and the comprehensive plan.
Those projects include restoration of the Centennial Building, the possible relocation of the Constitution Convention Museum to a bay front park; renovation of the museum and existing Constitution City Park; and relocation of the Cape San Blas Lighthouse to George Core Park, among other items.
Under the Competitive Florida process the idea is to match action projects and plans with economic development.
The groups also came back with a host of observations about Port St. Joe and ideas about how to improve what is already here.
“To hear the opinions of other people of what we see every day was very interesting,” said Paula Pickett, director of the Chamber of Commerce.
There were obvious assets – Sacred Heart on the Gulf; the Gulf/Franklin Center and access to higher education; the waterfront and the many options it provides; the Port of St. Joe and the deepwater bulkhead on the old mill site; the many city parks; the Port City Trail; downtown historic areas; and the Arizona Chemical site owned outright by the Port Authority.
“We thought the downtown had a great start and we would want to continue those improvements,” said Alissa Slade-Lotane with the Department of State. “Reid Avenue is a major asset.”
The group identified opportunities for improvements – better signage; improvements of the low docks; creating after-school programs and opportunities for students; the Washington Recreation area; creating a gateway to the city through highway beautification as just a few examples.
And the group also identified threats that hold the city back – a lack of trust across races and economic classes; somewhat segmented demographics; and the lack of affordable housing among the most pressing.
“The city needs to own its own destiny,” said Tim Center of the Capitol Area Action Agency. “It is about the community that is here and how it will sustain itself.”
And part of that destiny, almost certainly, will be an operational port. Hanging over last week’s exercise was the impact that economic development will have on the varied assets that make the city what it is.
“We’ve looked at existing assets,” said Mark Yelland of the DEO. “How will they be affected by such a big effort with the port?”
A quandary most of the folks in the room, seeking to fuel local economic development, seemed eager and willing to contemplate.