By Richard Fetchick
Port St. Joe is just one of many sparkling communities dotting Florida’s Forgotten Coast, nestled quietly in the state’s panhandle. Over the last two decades, the city has undertaken many efforts to diversify the local economy, including planning partnerships with the state. At the same time, public officials and residents have spearheaded efforts in Port St. Joe to restore beauty and vitality to the coastal Gulf County community.
In 2005, Port St. Joe was designated a Waterfronts Florida community. The city began collaborating with the state to address four priority areas in the local community: protecting environmental and cultural resources, improving public access, developing hazard resilience and enhancing the economy. As a Waterfronts Florida community, Port. St. Joe constructed a gleaming Bay Walk promenade that now shines as a centerpiece of the waterfront community, providing access to the St. Joseph Bay for visitors and residents.
More recently, Port St. Joe applied for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s newest community development initiative, the Competitive Florida Partnership. The city was designated as one of four Competitive Florida Communities during the program’s first year in 2013. Port St. Joe was asked to explore economic development strategies that would preserve the community’s character and assets, including its unique waterfront. The city developed an economic development plan that “celebrates the history and culture of the region through educational and cultural venues to attract a new demographic of visitor and increase local jobs for locals.” Using this vision, the city has successfully revitalized the historic Port Theatre and rehabilitated the Cape San Blas lighthouse.
The non-profit Port Theatre Art and Culture Center was created to revive the Historic Port Theatre, located in the historic downtown shopping district and commercial center. The newly operational theatre brings the community together for a weekly event called “Thursdays at the Theatre.”
Because of local efforts such as this, economic activity has flourished in the area, including new storefronts supporting real estate, food service and retail sector businesses. The theatre was purchased through a Department of State Historic Preservation Grant, and the department has recommended a second grant to fund the renovation of the theatre, which is expected to further enrich the thriving community.
A second major achievement involved the relocation of the Cape San Blas Lighthouse to George Core Park. Originally located on the cape, the lighthouse, keepers’ quarters and oil house were hauled 12.3 miles by truck convoy to their new home at the park. The historic preservation committee, which manages the lighthouse, holds a popular moonlight climb, and the Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center is housed within the keeper’s quarters. Four jobs have been created since its 2014 installation to oversee programming at the facility, which has drawn in many new visitors to the area in the past few years.
Port St. Joe has proven that embracing its unique working waterfronts heritage can improve economic development opportunities and strengthen the local community.
Richard Fetchick currently manages the Competitive Florida Partnership at the Department of Economic Opportunity. He holds a Master’s Degree in Planning from Florida State University and has worked domestically and abroad in economic development and planning for five years. He can be reached at Richard.Fetchick@deo.myflorida.com.