HUGHES: There are fewer and fewer places like this in America today, long stretches of unspoiled beach, pristine estuaries, and miles of forest. This is Florida's Panhandle, a place where there are more pine trees than people.
But if one company has its way, this place may be changing forever.
The corporation that owns much of this land is called the St. Joe Company. It's named after one of the few towns down here. Now it wants to use its political muscle to build new ones to transform the region and it wants taxpayers to help pay for it.
HIAASEN: They're getting a huge amount of help from the taxpayers not even aware of it. And that's why the Panhandle is such an apt name for this area. Because that's what… St. Joe is panhandling off the taxpayer and they don't want you to know that.
HUGHES: St. Joe is Florida's largest private landowner, a former paper company that began life in this old mill in the 1930s.
During the depression, it bought up millions of acres of timber acres that sprawl across more than eight counties in Florida's Panhandle. Incredibly large holdings that combined are nearly the size of the Grand Canyon National Park with hundreds of miles of forests, wetlands and swamps…39 miles of precious coastline.
And it was all virtually untouched until 1996, when St. Joe got out of the paper business, deciding the real money was in real estate.
PITTMAN: Suddenly they had gone from being this very old line stodgy paper mill company, industrial operation, and then suddenly, boom, they're on the move, and they're developing.
HUGHES: Craig Pittman covers the environment for the ST. PETERSBURG TIMES. His investigation unveiled the scope of the company's plans plans that would not only transform the region's economy, but its identity.
PITTMAN: They'd say, "No. No. We don't call it the Panhandle. That has a bad connotation. Panhandling. We prefer to call it Florida's Great Northwest."
We even ran a picture in the paper of President Bush making a speech in Panama City under that big banner that said Welcome to Florida's Great Northwest."
HUGHES: But there's a problem in the Great Northwest. St. Joe's plans are so big that no one state agency exists to oversee them all. And many locals are concerned about the potential economic and environmental upheaval they might bring.
PITTMAN: The state's growth management laws are not set up to deal with it, local planners are not really equipped to deal with this sort of thing. Everybody is just kind of overwhelmed by the St. Joe steamroller. Nobody has a grip on what St. Joe's doing really, except St. Joe.
HUGHES: One of the roughly 20 projects underway, is right in the company's hometown of Port St. Joe. The old paper mill is being torn down here and word is that new condominiums will replace it. Just down the street, St. Joe is putting up a development it wants to market as both new and old. They call it WindMark.
PITTMAN: They're selling a specific kind of product that they call placemaking, where they're attempting to make it something unique, something with a type of character that would appeal to folks who are interested in that kind of slower pace of life, even if by building this they wipe out that slower pace of life.
HUGHES: The company is marketing the community's "folksy charm" and "local color." It says Windmark will be "A brand new bit of Old Florida."
When completed, Windmark will include more than 1000 homes, shops, and maybe even a golf course. The starting price for a waterfront lot? More than a half-million dollars. Yet the average person living here makes less than 30,000 dollars a year.
HIAASEN: The folks living there now, they're not going to be able to afford to live in these houses. They're not going to be able to afford to pay the greens fees at these golf courses. I mean, who are they kidding?
HUGHES: MIAMI HERALD columnist and best selling novelist Carl Hiaasen has made a career of chronicling the downside of Florida's development.
HIAASEN: It's the folks who have lived their lives there or who raised their families there. People who are really sort of innocent bystanders in all this. And the shame of it is, they're being told this is your future.
HUGHES: That's an opinion the people at St Joe take issue with. Billy Buzzett is the company's Director of Special Projects for the region.
BUZZETT: One of the things we're interested in being is part of the population, part of complementing what's here, not competing with it, and clearly not changing it.
We don't want to over-develop. We know that people are coming here because of the environment, not in spite of it, and we want to be a part of that.
HUGHES: But the Panhandle's relatively untouched environment is already changing. Last year a Forest Service report said many of the rare species of plants and animals here are threatened by development. Still, St. Joe claims it can protect the environment and transform the landscape.
BUZZETT: So if there's anybody who can do it right, we can do it right. If there's anybody who doesn't have to squeeze every square inch out of a piece of land, we can do that, too.
HUGHES: Buzzett says that the company has even hired a former Nature Conservancy director to help preserve sensitive lands. But, it's also made millions in the process, selling more than 120,000 acres of that land to both the state and conservation groups over the past three years.
HIAASEN: They're not losing money there. They're making money off of that. Off their own generosity. Even that's a profit-making action.
Every cheese ball developer in Florida does that when he comes in. It's the same deal. They have to. "Oh, you want a park? We'll build you a little park over here. And maybe we'll even throw in some money for some swings, you know. And a sandbox." And then they get a little plaque. And everybody's happy and then they get noticed in the paper. Gee, St. Joe donated this for a park. Whoop-dee-do. While they're paving the rest of your town, you can go sit in the park and watch.
HUGHES: And according to Craig Pittman, there are good reasons to be skeptical. The company has already been caught playing fast and loose with the facts near this aquatic preserve 45 miles east of Port St. Joe. It owns the shoreline here and intends to turn it into a playground for the well to do. One called SummerCamp.
PITTMAN: When they first started working on SummerCamp, folks from the environmental community, state representatives from that area went to them and said, "Hey, look, what are you building here? Uh, you've got plans for Franklin County?"
"Oh, no, no, no," they were told, "No, no. We're not planning anything big here."
"Uh, we hear rumors about a marina."
"No, no. We're not planning any sort of marina, it's just, you know a real small little development, no, not a big deal."
HUGHES: The ecology here is one of the most diverse in the country. More than 10 percent of America's oysters are harvested nearby, and thousands of acres of sea grasses act as a nursery for Florida's prized game fish. It's an environment easily damaged by too much boat traffic.
PITTMAN: And suddenly the plans come out and it's a 26 split marina, with storage for 200 boats and it's for the thousands of people up in Tallahassee, that they'll all be coming down. And, oh my God, it's just huge. And there were a lot of people who looked at that and said, "St. Joe speaks with a forked tongue."
HUGHES: St. Joe's original plans not only envisioned a marina, but a hotel, shops and 499 houses. Why 499? Because one more house would trigger a state environmental review.
And that's under a law that St. Joe successfully lobbied to change just two years ago. Before the law was changed, building only 250 new homes would have started that review.
A concerned coalition of environmental groups pressured the company to scale back the project.
JOHNSON: We don't think it's as simple as just saying no to St. Joe. We think that telling them that they need to do it right is the proper way to go.
HUGHES: Paul Johnson is a director of the Apalachee Ecological Conservancy and one of those who held the company's feet to the fire.
JOHNSON: A lot of people feel that to stand in front of the bulldozer will stop it, but we feel that we would be more effective in telling St. Joe where the bulldozer needs to go, or more importantly, where it doesn't need to go.
HUGHES: Last winter St. Joe agreed to drop plans for the marina at SummerCamp and the company now says it will cluster the new homes so that nearly 70 percent of the site will remain as is.
PITTMAN: SummerCamp is maybe the closest thing to an environmentally sensitive development that St. Joe's got because they screwed up in the beginning and they tried to be, you know, they tried to be clever about it and it backfired on them.
HUGHES: But since then, most of the company's other projects seem to be moving forward with few setbacks. The man heading the effort is Peter Rummel, St. Joe's president and CEO.
RUMMEL: The things we do are large scale. Nobody else does things in this region… does things on the scale that we do them.
HUGHES: Rummel came to St. Joe in 1997 from the Walt Disney Company. He was a driving force behind the 2000 home community of Celebration, Florida.
He also led Disney's controversial effort to build a theme park right next to a Civil War battlefield in Manassas, VA. But this project is by far his most ambitious.
PITTMAN: Their ultimate goal, and they make no bones about this, is to create a sort of domino effect. They would begin by developing along the coastline, the most desirable property of all, and then the next step back, a little bit further inland, so then they develop there.
Well, that creates demand for development behind that. And as they kind of, you know, as the dominos fall eventually they go all the way up to, to the Alabama state line.
They call that, "creating value to the nth degree."
HUGHES: But creating that kind of value takes more than owning the land, it takes political influence. During the 2000 elections, Peter Rummell and his wife gave $20,000 to the Republican Party.
For the past six years, St. Joe has made campaign contributions to more than 100 candidates in both parties for Florida state offices. And its subsidiary, Arvida, made additional donations to many of the same candidates, among them, two of the state's most powerful officials, State Senate President Jim King and Governor Jeb Bush.
HIAASEN: If it was Democrats who were the front runners they'd be throwing money at them, too. I mean, they bet on the winners.
HUGHES: And when it comes to beating back local opposition, St. Joe's political connections can come in handy. To make their folksy WindMark development attractive to wealthy buyers, St. Joe wants to provide as much beachfront access as possible. But there's a problem. A road's in the way.
U.S. 98, a scenic coastal highway that runs the length of the Panhandle, cuts right through St. Joe's beachfront property. And instead of moving Windmark, St. Joe wanted to move the highway.
One county commissioner, fearing the community would lose access to the beach, called for a non-binding referendum… nothing with the force of law, simply as a way to express public opinion on the record.
But after this meeting of county planning commission, that ceased to be a problem for St Joe. It happened in January 2002.
See that man walking to the podium? His name is Clay Smallwood. He volunteers his time as chair of a board that advises the Commission. According to Craig Pittman, right before this meeting, Smallwood met privately with each of the commissioners, letting them know he was submitting a resolution to move the highway, effectively killing the referendum.
PITTMAN: He told them, "This is coming up. I'm going to bring it up, this is what I want you to do." And three of them went along with it.
HUGHES: The "fix" was in. Clay Smallwood also happens to be a St. Joe executive.
PITTMAN: The public didn't get any notice that this was going to come up. There was no chance for, you know, hundreds of people to show up and complain. It just ran right on through. St. Joe got what it wanted.
HUGHES: Nearly four miles of U.S. 98 will be moved at St. Joe's expense. And the company promises to give the public two points of access to the private beach.
But St. Joe also wants two more highways built through the Panhandle at public expense.
Governor Bush has already earmarked 2 million state dollars toward one of those: a new four-lane highway cutting across swampland owned by St. Joe. The company is also asking for a new $700 million dollar interstate connecting the Panhandle's coast to Alabama. That goes through, it would require not only state, but federal tax money.
HIAASEN: Florida has a grand history of accommodating developers who can't get their suckers to a particular area to buy land. We'll just build 'em a road.
HUGHES: But suppose people want to fly, not drive, to Florida's Great Northwest? There's a plan involving state and federal tax dollars for that, too.
PITTMAN: St. Joe wants to make it easier to get to their developments. One of the big things they want is a brand new airport for the Panama City area, not in Panama City, because they're not building in Panama City. They want it 20 miles outside of town, next to a state forest in an area where they own the surrounding 70 thousand acres.
HUGHES: But there already is an airport in Panama City. It was renovated only seven years ago and has been operating at less than 50 percent capacity. Still, St. Joe wants to shut that one down and build a bigger one in the forest, right in the middle of a huge tract of land on which it has plans to build its biggest project yet.
PITTMAN: The net result is the tail wagging the dog. Ideally you build transportation projects in order to accommodate a need. And instead I think they're building, they want to build these transportation projects in order to create a need.
HUGHES: Estimated cost of St. Joe's new airport? 200 million dollars the bulk of which will be paid for by taxpayers.
MALE VOICE, WMBB-TV, PANAMA CITY, FL (FROM TAPE): Governor, you talk about reducing government, yet this airport project's gonna cost something like $200 million in state, federal, and local tax money. And a lot of the critics say, "Hey, don't let this air… the existing airport's not even being utilized."
GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (FROM TAPE): The critics will have many forums to be able to discuss their views on this. I mean, that will be a community decision.
KATHLEEN HUGHES: Or will it? The recent record isn't encouraging.
The Governor, whose former real estate company recently sold a one-third interest to St. Joe, has been one of the airport's biggest cheerleaders. He recently traveled to Panama City to promote the idea for which he's already budgeted $10 million of state funding.
But Governor Bush is not the only influential person paying attention to the airport. The man St. Joe hired as their lobbyist is William Harrison. He was also the local chairman of both Jeb and George W. Bush's last campaigns through the Panhandle.
Critics say that with these kinds of connections, the future of the airport will be anything but a 'community decision.'
HEDRICK: This airport seems to be being set up for just one company's large benefit, that is, the St. Joe Company's, to have it benefit their property.
HUGHES: Jon Hedrick is the founder of the Panhandle Citizens Coalition. Last spring he and his colleagues went door to door in an effort to get enough signatures for a local referendum on the airport.
HEDRICK: Citizens have the right and the ability to be able to be the ones that are actually shaping their own destiny and not leave it up to a developer or several developers.
HUGHES: But even though opponents thought they had enough signatures, the city commission is arguing that the airport falls under state, not local control and has refused to get involved. The coalition is challenging that decision in court.
Meanwhile, the St. Joe Steamroller rumbles on.
BUZZETT: We think doing it differently doesn't mean that you can't protect the environment. And doing it differently doesn't mean that you can't make a fair return for your shareholders. And at the end of the day, I'd like to be able to stand up and say that we've been able to do it all and I think we can. And shame on us if we can't.