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ORLANDO-Undaunted by a sparse population base in northwest Florida, locally based St. Joe Commercial plans to enter the retail arena for the first time with a bulging one-million acre inventory and develop eight high-traffic sites that could house up to 800,000 sf of new product in Bay and Walton counties. The sites are 250 miles northwest of Downtown Orlando.

No ground-breaking dates on specific locations have been set but the company already is scouting sites in the Tallahassee area for a second-phase retail development. St. Joe officials are banking on the five million annual visitors to newly developed resorts and tourist destinations in Florida’s Panhandle to support the new retail.

“Based on recent growth rates, it is projected that population in Florida’s Great Northwest will double over the next eight years,” Craig Buchanan, St. Joe Commercial’s director, retail development, Orlando, tells GlobeSt.com. “More than 11,000 homes are currently in development or under construction, including WaterColor, WaterSound and other residential projects by St. Joe Commercial’s sister company, Arvida Realty Services.”

But the fact remains that the current permanent population of Bay County, based on available US Census Bureau data, is an estimated 139,693; Walton County, 30,534; and Tallahassee, 137,250.

“That’s hardly what you might call a critical mass (of population),” an Orlando retail broker, not associated with the St. Joe projects, tells GlobeSt.com on condition of anonymity.

But Buchanan points out St. Joe’s dirt lies near a new regional airport hub that has received Federal Aviation Agency approval to be built on St. Joe-owned land; a proposed North Bay Energy Park is on the drawing boards; and several large-scale community developments and major road improvements are scheduled, including an Interstate 10 connector to US 98.

“St. Joe’s vast land holdings afford us the unique opportunity to offer tenants and retail developers key parcels in this burgeoning market,” Buchanan says. “While our primary emphasis in this first phase is on land sales, we also are pursuing opportunities to develop our own shopping centers in the region.”

Buchanan didn’t disclose a land price range, but land brokers familiar with northwest Florida dirt tell GlobeSt.com the parcels will be at least in the $1 per sf to $2.50 per sf range. That would put the per-acre price range at $43,560 to $108,900.

St. Joe Commercial, formed only in 1998, has developed 3.5 million sf of commercial and industrial in the last three years and has one million sf under development throughout Florida.

St. Joe Commercial’s plans come as its parent reports strong second-quarter results. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization was $48.3 million (up 47%) or 57 cents per diluted share (up 50%). That compares with net EBITDA of $32.8 million or 38 cents per diluted share for the comparable 2000 quarter.

St. Joe Land Co., a wholly owned subsidiary, again topped expectations with net EBITDA of $11.2 million. Residential sales contributed $11.9 million to net EBITDA. St. Joe Commercial reported net EBITDA of $6.6 million, largely as a result of the sale of the NCCI Building in Boca Raton, FL. Another subsidiary, Arvida Realty Services increased 29% to $9.4 million in net EBITDA, compared with second quarter 2000.

St. Joe Co.’s net income was $24.3 million or 29 cents per diluted share, versus $15 million or 17 cents per diluted share in the same quarter of 2000, an increase of 71%.

“Demand remains strong for our northwest Florida products, on and off the beach,” St. Joe Co. chairman/CEO Peter S. Rummell, a former Walt Disney World executive in Orlando, says in a prepared statement. “Sales have been strong across the region, from WaterColor in Walton County to SouthWood in Tallahassee.”

Discounting the sluggish national economic picture, Rummell says, “as the regional transformation now under way takes firm hold, we believe demand for our products will continue to accelerate.”

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