The Water is Always Greener

The Water is Always GreenerForgotten Coast leaders look to improve the region in a flat economy

By Jason Dehart

Jimmy Buffett once wrote in his book “Where is Joe Merchant?” that if you can cook, fly or play music, you’ll be happy and never go hungry.

That kind of lifestyle may work for some people, but it’s not enough to sustain an economic region such as the Forgotten Coast. There, the dictum would be, “If you have a good system of health care, gobs of tourists, a thriving seafood industry and booming real estate market … then you just might make it.”

Wakulla, Franklin and Gulf counties continue to face challenges in all those areas. The good news is, in some ways, things are getting better.

Health care service has come a long way — construction continues on the new $35 million Sacred Heart hospital on U.S. Highway 98 in Port St. Joe, and in Apalachicola things are looking brighter for Weems Memorial Hospital, which is upgrading services and also now has a clinical affiliation with Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare.

However, tourism numbers continue to fluctuate — at least in Gulf County, which is noted for its great beaches.

“We had a good October, but everything is so unstable,” says Paula Pickett, executive director of the Gulf County Tourist Development office.

Again, there is good news. Cape San Blas — the area’s star tourist attraction — is undergoing a $22 million beach “renourishment” project that will protect homes, add to the tax base, increase tourism and foster development.

The beach project isn’t the only economic good news. St. Joe Company is about to help put the “port” back into Port St. Joe. Back in December, the company signed an agreement allowing the Port Authority of St. Joe to lease enough land to eventually reopen the old port and expand its capacity. The site ought to be ready to receive ships in about three years, officials say.

Of course, one can’t think about the Forgotten Coast without thinking of the seafood industry, which admittedly has seen better days.

“The economic structure has definitely impacted the seafood industry, and our sales are down probably 15 to 20 percent across the board,” says Grady Leavins, who has been in the business for some 38 years. His company survives on innovation and adaptation. Leavins says he was the first to introduce food-safe plastic containers to the oyster industry.

When times get tough, he never backs down from a challenge. When the federal government mandated that illnesses caused by eating raw shellfish be reduced by a whopping 60 percent, Leavins figured out a better way to kill bacteria by flash-freezing oysters as they’re being harvested.

“These are the things we’re doing to remain leaders in the industry,” he says.

Local charter boat captains also are having a tough time making ends meet these days. Both the economy, changing bag limits and stringent governmental requirements have at least one old salt feeling the squeeze.

“The economy has gone down and gas is up, and the number of individual boats is less than 50 percent of what it was five years ago,” said Captain Charles “Chuck” Guilford of Charisma Charters in Mexico Beach.

“There’s also too much government.”

Back on land, local Realtors say that the time is right for prospective homebuyers to jump into the market. It’s as good a time as any to begin looking, because prices are low and inventory is high. If you have great credit, check into it. But be armed with levelheaded advisers, excellent credit history and realistic expectations.

So don’t let the constant gloom and doom reports stop you from living your life. The grass — or water — is always greener along the Forgotten Coast.