The hotel would be “no more than five stories” and funded entirely by St. Joe.
PANAMA CITY — After years of searching the country for a partner to redevelop the Panama City Marina, city leaders may have found one in their own backyard.
The St. Joe Company has submitted a letter of interest to build a full service hotel with a lounge and restaurant on the marina property as a first step. And a key component of that, St. Joe President and CEO Jorge Gonzalez likes to point out, is that St. Joe, unlike past suitors, is not asking the city to contribute financially.
“We believe that successful downtowns redevelop one step at a time with each step building on the next, as opposed to trying to execute too many steps at one time,” St. Joe President and CEO Jorge Gonzalez wrote to the city. “Each step must be thoughtfully planned and carefully executed.
“It must also be done consistent with the existing character of the surround areas as opposed to forcing a new and different character that does not fit,” he wrote.
The letter was not solicited by the city, according to Mayor Greg Brudnicki, but he was happy to see it appear.
“I think it has the potential to be a wonderful opportunity for Panama City,” Brudnicki said. “They are locally vested, understand the area and its people, and the legitimate financial wherewithal to make it happen.”
In March, the city was burned when a deal they had spent two years negotiating with Sonnenblick Development — led by developer Bob Sonnenblick who officials had repeatedly said was “the guy” for the job —fell through as both parties were unable to agree on the finances of the grand plans being proposed. Sonnenblick unsatisfactorily completing the due diligence accompanied by a steep ask for financial incentives led to the break up.
It was the third deal to fall through for the city since officials started talking about ways to improve the marina in 2012. Since the fallout, the commissioners have said they want to keep moving forward on the marina but have been largely quiet on what it could like, though they did at times talked about a simpler approach.
The new St. Joe plan could be their answer.
While never mentioning the Sonnenblick plan — which by the end drew sharp criticism from the community — the letter from St. Joe seems to carefully paint itself in contrast.
Where Sonnenblick insisted the scale must be grand — the final plan called for two hotels, several restaurants, retail, a movie theatre and more — and done all at once to work, St. Joe is proposing a hotel “no more than five stories” and a step by step approach.
Past plans included moving or otherwise changing the popular boat launch area; St. Joe has no interest in running the marina or its boating facilities.
Where Sonnenblick asked for hefty tax incentives, St. Joe wrote it is their intent to “fund, construct, own and operate the hotel and restaurant on the City’s property without requesting additional financial assistance from the City.” Instead, they are are asking commissioners to consider a ground lease that is based on the performance of the hotel.
“That way, we all win if the hotel does well,” Gonzalez wrote.
And finally where Sonnenblick never satisfied the city’s request for due diligence, St. Joe is saying they would conduct their own due diligence, develop a site plan, evaluate hotel and restaurant brand concepts and finalize a financial model in an “efficient time frame.”
The letter, dated Sept. 6, is being placed on the Sept. 13 Panama City Commission meeting agenda for discussion. In the meantime, City Attorney Nevin Zimmerman is recommending that if the Commission considers the unsolicited proposal from St. Joe, “that the city give notice of such intention but also give others 30 days to make a similar proposal to the Commission for consideration.”
It seems likely the commission will move forward with that plan.
St. Joe company has long been a major player in Northwest Florida, shaping the region with projects they’ve built or helped orchestrate in addition to making millions of dollars in donations to nonprofits through their charity arm, the St. Joe Foundation.
On the hotel front, USA Today recently named two of St. Joe’s properties in the top 10 in the country for waterfront hotels. WaterColor Inn in Santa Rosa Beach was named number four and the Pearl Hotel in Rosemary Beach was named number 10.
If it happens, the hotel, the letter said, would reflect the company’s continued commitment to the region.
“When positive things happen in an area, positive things happen with us so we are strong believers a rising tide lifts all boats,” Gonzalez wrote. “A healthy vibrant downtown with an ecosystem of workers, residents, shoppers, and guests is an important components of the rising tide of a community.”