JACKSONVILLE, FL-After years in the planning stage, the Jacksonville-based St. Joe Company, is beginning the leasing program for the first building in its 1000-acre project known as VentureCrossings Enterprise Centre, a mixed-use development in Northwest Florida, otherwise known as the Florida Panhandle, near Panama City.

The 40,000 to 60,000-square-foot building will be the company’s new home, where 100 to 150 employees are expected to move in the summer of 2011, says Kevin Johnson, vice president of economic development for the St. Joe Co. It has yet to be determined how much of the building will be rented out to office and retail tenants.

Not coincidentally, St. Joe is making plans for the new building at a time when the first international airport built in the US in 15 years, is about to open in Bay County next to the new project.

On May 23, 2010, the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, for which St. Joe donated 4,000 acres, will make its debut, replacing the existing Panama City-Bay County airport and making the area more accessible to the outside world. Southwest and Delta airlines will offer flights out of this airport. The current facility can only accommodate regional carriers because of its short runway.

While 1000 acres may sound large for a mixed-use development, St. Joe, the largest land owner in Northwest Florida, owns 75,000 acres governed by the West Bay Sector Plan, a long-term land use plan adopted by Bay County.

The St. Joe Co. has been a land baron in Northwest Florida since the 1930s when it was founded.The company was formed after the death of Alfred I. duPont in 1935 as a holding company for duPont’s extensive business assets. Once known mainly for its timber, paper manufacturing and railroad, 20 years ago, St. Joe went public, sold off its industrial properties and began developing its vast quantities of land in Northwest Florida, especially residential development.

Today St. Joe has plans for a virtual city in the area surrounding the new airport which will be next to VentureCrossings Enterprise Centre. It will be selling land to other developers as well as building its own buildings. “The project will have just about every kind of development,” says Johnson–light industrial, office, retail and a space for a hotel and restaurants.

St. Joe is beginning VentureCrossings Enterprise Centre at an opportune time, relatively speaking, says Sheila McGrath, a REIT analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods in New York. “Today, the economy has picked up some compared to a year ago. Now, companies are making some leasing and relocation decisions. Also, it is much better to be developing the project now that Southwest and Delta Airlines will be serving the new airport in Bay County. (As part of the full disclosure by KBW, the company says that it expects to receive compensation from St. Joe for investment banking services in the next three months.)

“St. Joe’s moving to where (the company’s) land holdings are located is a positive,” says McGrath. For the company to market the place after relocating its own senior executives, shows that it is committed to the region, she says.

Although St. Joe is going to develop large swaths of rural land to build VentureCrossings, the company is putting 39,000 acres in a permanent preservation area, although St. Joe will still own the land, says Johnson.

The main employers in the region where St. Joe has holdings are related to tourism and the military, says McGrath, so the company will be targeting businesses related to those industries in its new development.

Northwest Florida is an area in transition, so the focus, by St. Joe, is on economic development, says McGrath, but an ancillary benefit to the company is to increase the value of its land holdings. That was why St. Joe wanted to attract Southwest Airlines to the new airport, she says. More accessibility makes St. Joe’s land more valuable, says McGrath.

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