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Date of Issue: January 14, 2009

Seven not so lucky for St. Joe's Shores

/1-14-09/st-joe-7shores.jpg
Gone with the wind
The sales trailer for the St. Joe company's SevenShores condominium project on Perico Island was removed Jan. 7, apparently ending any immediate effort by the company to sell units at the project. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

If seven is a lucky number in dice on the first roll, then the St. Joe Co. apparently failed to make its point with its SevenShores condominium development on Perico Island.

The St. Joe Co. last week pulled its sales trailer off the site, ending for now a 10-year effort to develop the north side of Perico Island across the Intracoastal Waterway from the Island.

When the project was first proposed, it was involved in a lawsuit that would have taken up a season on television’s “Boston Legal.”

The staff have been gone from the sales trailer for more than a year, and the removal of the trailer may indicate St. Joe has given up on selling any of the 686 condo units approved for SevenShores.

It’s a victory — of sorts — for those who opposed the project when it was first proposed in the late 1990s, but any victory is bittersweet, said Glenn Compton of ManaSota-88, the environmental group that was at the forefront of legal actions against the project.

“I’m not going to shed any tears that they’ve left the site. It’s a project that should never have been approved,” he said.

Compton noted that his non-profit organization spent a considerable amount of time and money in legal fees to oppose the project. Now, the damage to the Perico Island environment has been done, he said.

“They could have been better stewards of the land,” said Compton. “It’s nothing but an eyesore now.”

In late 2006, St. Joe announced it was facing sluggish sales at SevenShores and would pull its sales staff, but continue to develop the infrastructure. St. Joe said then in a press release that it would look for private builders to construct the units.

St. Joe wanted to sell units starting in the low $500,000 range when it opened the sales office in 2005. At that time, waterfront condominiums on Anna Maria Island were selling for $500,000 and up, and St. Joe promised a luxury, gated community with numerous amenities.

As the price of Island condos fell, however, so did interest in SevenShores. After 18 months of marketing, the company said it had but nine reservations.

But St. Joe’s decision to cut its losses and end any sales effort for the foreseeable future came too late to save the northwestern side of Perico Island from the bulldozer.

Bradenton annexed the property in 1999 and St. Joe — then known as Arvida — quickly announced plans to build high-rise condos on the site, which formerly contained a farm owned by the Preston family of Bradenton.

Island cities, Manatee County, private citizens and ManaSota-88 cried foul at the prospect of an undeveloped barrier island replaced with 10-story condo buildings that could accommodate up to 1,750 people. A series of court actions challenging the annexation were quickly filed, with Manatee County and ManaSota-88 at the forefront of the civil suits.

Although all the legal challenges eventually failed or were settled out of court, those actions tied up the start of construction for nearly four years — a period when Island real estate prices, including those for condominiums, were skyrocketing and properties were selling quickly.

As part of the legal settlement with Manatee County and ManaSota-88, St. Joe agreed to reduce the number of units at SevenShores from more than 900 to 686.

By the time the road was clear for St. Joe to begin construction, however, the boom days of Island real estate were gone, replaced by a steady cycle of lower prices, declining values and fewer sales.

 SevenShores’ $500,000 price tag for its lowest-priced unit apparently didn’t draw a lot of serious interest as Island condominiums were selling for an average of less than $300,000 earlier this year.

As part of its plans to develop SevenShores, St. Joe purchased the Perico Harbor Marina. The marina storage building and offices were torn down during the closure of the Anna Maria Island Bridge in October. St. Joe previously said it planned to construct deep-water slips for high-draft boats and yachts.

St. Joe already has a Florida Department of Environmental Protection permission to dredge the channel in front of the marina and put in more docks. The company also has site-plan approval from Bradenton for retail shops and a restaurant at the marina site. It purchased — and subsequently tore down — the former Leverock’s restaurant on the western edge of the marina property.

Construction of the infrastructure elements for the retail shops at the site began last year, but have since been halted.

St. Joe has removed information about SevenShores from its Web site and no longer includes the project among its list of Florida communities.

St. Joe has developed numerous housing and commercial projects in Florida, primarily in the panhandle region, although in years past when it was Arvida, the company built several projects on Longboat Key, including the Longboat Key Club.

According to St. Joe online (www.joe.com), the company sold nearly 20,000 acres in northwest Florida in December for $28 million. The company said the land was “non-strategic” for any of its developments.

While the Web site makes no mention of the SevenShores project, it does say the company foresees a “prolonged economic downturn” in Florida and has no plans for any new projects at this time.

The Web site says the St. Joe Company is still the state’s largest private landowner.

Efforts to reach St. Joe vice president Ed Hill or St. Joe spokesperson Joe Ray for comment were unsuccessful.

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