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State of the South 2014: Port St. Joe

State of the South 2014: Port St. Joe

If you're a football fan, you may already know that the New York Jets first pick in the NFL draft was Calvin Pryor, a junior safety from the University of Louisville. On the night of the draft, in Port St. Joe, FL, Calvin’s hometown, there was  a big screen TV, a cover band, and free barbecue, all set up in a parking lot with ocean views, to celebrate. We happened to be in town for the party and for our first State of the South 2014 on-the-road visit. Nearly everyone we talked to either invited us to the draft celebration or asked us if we’d been there. Athletics is one thing that brings this small town (population 3,400) together across all the lines that might divide a rural community in the South—race, class, politics, power—and Calvin’s success was a point of pride that everyone could agree on.

(Sunset over St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, nearly 20 miles of unspoiled beaches on the Cape San Blas peninsula protecting St. Joseph Bay and Port St. Joe.)

While Port St. Joe High School has had a few athletes go pro over the years, it’s not exactly a solid advancement strategy for the city’s young people (no matter what the kids think when they take the field in the popular pee-wee leagues). For decades, the path to the middle class in Port St. Joe was a job at the St. Joe Company paper mill—or one of the other supporting (and St. Joe-owned) industries like the railroad or the phone company. But with the 1998 closure of the mill and the departure of another industry—Arizona Chemical—in the early 2000s, Port St. Joe has struggled to sustain the population and prospects for goods jobs beyond the seasonal tourism economy. Right now, government is the largest employer (municipal services, schools, corrections).

(Minnie Likely, head of the North Port St. Joe Community Youth Initiative, smiles at the after-school program she runs at the former George Washington High School.)

The city has a bigger vision for its beautiful bay, however. They are working to assemble the puzzle pieces to reopen a deep-water port, restore rail service, and expand a highway corridor that could bring shipping and small cruise travel—and expanded employment opportunities—back to the community. Over the course of our two-day visit, we talked to leaders in local government, workforce system, the local community college, churches, and afterschool programs who are committed to Port St. Joe and believe in its potential to thrive as the close-knit community that people—both visitors and homegrown residents—return to and love. The full profile in our State of the South 2014 report (to be released this fall) will feature how this community is taking stock of their assets and displaying serious creativity when it comes to stretching Federal and private investments in the community. It must be the salty sea air (which also did wonders for my wavy hair—more than an entire adolescence in land-locked Iowa ever did).

You can follow us on Instagram for dispatches from upcoming visits to other Southern destinations.