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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real Estate Florida.)

When it comes to Panama City’s new airport, Jerry Ray speaks with the passion and conviction of an evangelist. Much like a preacher with a Bible, he’s armed with his own historical perspective.

For instance, the beachside Florida Panhandle hotspot, long popular with spring breakers and summer vacationers, was known as a major port in the early 20th century. Originally called Harrison, it was renamed to connect with the still-new Panama Canal and was convenient to ships from both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

“They knew all this in 1914 and we have forgotten,” says Ray, senior vice president of strategic alliances with the Jacksonville-based St. Joe Co. He notes that Panama City’s premier port status lasted from 1915 until the 1929 market crash that led to the Great Depression.

Now the city has an opportunity to restore its trade status by way of a new international airport being developed as part of St. Joe’s 75,000-acre West Bay project, which Ray believes will be a national focal point for development over the next 50 to 100 years. The $500-million project is scheduled to finish its first phase in May 2010, with the airport component being built on a 4,000-acre site donated by St. Joe to the Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority.

Already having faced criticism for developing an airport that will be one of Florida’s largest in a metropolitan area with only 164,000 residents, Ray counters that it will reach beyond Bay County to an area known as the “deep Southeast,” encompassing parts of neighboring Alabama and Georgia in addition to the Panhandle within two-and-a-half hours driving time. The first 8,400 feet of the airport’s 10,000-foot runway is already finished and is currently being used by helicopters, though it is ready to accept planes, he says.

“This is planning for the future, rather than remediating the past,” Ray tells Real Estate Florida. He adds that the new airport will be tied to the city’s old seaport in a multimodal grid, sending cargo containers by truck and rail throughout the US.

The airport’s proximity to Tyndall and Eglin Air Force Bases also bolsters the argument that Panama City is the correct location, Ray says. “There’s really only one place it can go,” he says, “and that’s right where it is.”

Ray also promotes the new Panama City International Airport as the nation’s “greenest,” not only in terms of seeking LEED construction certification from the US Green Building Council but creating a conservation buffer around approaches that will make plane noise a non-issue for nearby businesses and residents. The 41,000-acre preservation area will ultimately protect 44 miles of undeveloped shoreline and another 33 miles of creeks and tributaries.

“We have to make economic growth and environmental protection work in concert,” Ray says. He adds that St. Joe consulted with various environmental groups over the past 11 years leading to the airport’s current development.

St. Joe is working with the Haskell Co. and TranSystems Corp. on master planning its land adjacent to the airport, with the first 1,000 acres including a mix of industrial, office and retail. The group’s initial marketing focus will be aerospace, logistics and defense-oriented technology companies.

“We are accelerating our preconstruction activity and stepping up marketing out reach to global users who need ready access to the new airport,” says Britt Green, St. Joe president and CEO. “It’s truly a unique opportunity to be part of one of Florida’s largest mixed-use planning developments.”

Ray says the initial phase of commercial development near the airport will entail 37 million square feet of industrial buildings with either direct or fence access to its tarmac. The mixed-use components of West Bay will be developed in 1,000-acre increments, with the market deciding what is built next, he says.

“Commercial real estate value occurs where there is connectedness,” he says. “If you are feeling constrained at an urban-encroached airport, this is the alternative.”

Steve Halverson, Haskell Co. president and CEO, says West Bay presents exciting prospects for commercial development. “There are very few greenfield opportunities with a strategic location and high-quality access to an airport, a deepwater port, road and rail connections,” he says.

Local real estate agents are positive about the prospects of additional commercial development to be derived from the new airport. “Expected increases in commercial and residential developments are expected to reshape the Panama City area’s economy by increasing the tourism trade, attracting more corporate headquarters and large distribution centers and providing new residential communities,” says Jennifer MacKay of Keller Williams Success Realty.

Ray points out that the biggest challenge for West Bay and the airport will be maintaining flexibility of development in decades to come. “This is a place that is going to have options for the future,” he says, “and that brings about value.”

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