By Shelby Gillis | firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Johns County has one of the strongest economies in Florida and continues to outpace the nation in unemployment and median household income.
The unemployment rate is 3.5 percent, lower all of the state’s 67 counties except Monroe County, home to Key West.
Among those pushing to ensure a robust economy is Declan Reiley, vice president of economic development for the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce. He oversees economic development initiatives and partnerships for the chamber’s Economic Development Council.
“We wake up every day thinking about how can I help a company grow today? Are there any impediments that this company or that company is facing that we can help knock down by bringing a solution provider to the table?” he said in an interview with the Gargoyle.
Reiley was born and raised in Jacksonville, and has years of economic development experience. Excerpts of his interview with the Gargoyle are below:
“Well, first of all, no one wakes up in the morning wanting to have a longer commute. So generally speaking, people think having a shorter commute is better. So to the degree that we can help grow jobs locally in the county for the 100,000 or so people that are in the work force of working age, they will not have to leave the county in order to go to their jobs.
“Right now there’s a dynamic in north, northern St. Johns County where a lot of people, they live in St. Johns County to take advantage of the excellent school systems but a lot of them are employed up in Duval County or the other surrounding counties and that’s not necessarily bad, but we’d prefer if they’d be residents and be employed within the county.
“We’re now the second lowest unemployment rate in the state at 3.5 percent and that’s not seasonally adjusted. The only county that has a lower unemployment rate in the state of Florida, of all 67 counties, is Monroe County which is the home of Key West.
“Those pockets of wealth that you’ll find throughout St. Johns County are largely in households that are on or near the water. Whether that be at the ocean, the intercostal waterway, or the St. Johns River, or any of its tributaries and lakes in the community, although we don’t have that many lakes. But if you were to look at a heat map of where the higher household incomes are, it would generally be surrounded by bodies of water. And you might add to that – and in gated communities.”
Reiley said affordable housing is a “growing problem.”
“It is a problem today and a growing problem because what is happening and is only becoming more of a problem is that the people who are vital to running a lot of companies at a lower wage level perhaps with their skill or education level, the wages associated with those positions are frequently not commensurate with the prices of housing. So you might have a solid job but if it’s with a limited education or a limited skill set and consequently a lower wage level, you might not be able to afford to live within a reasonable commute distance of that job. A place where this is really a problem is in the hospitality and lodging sector because there are a lot of people necessary to run a lodging establishment but they can’t necessarily find affordable housing close enough to those jobs.”
Reiley said the shrinking of America’s middle class is a big problem.
“The elephant’s in the room in national politics that we need new ideas and new leadership in order to reverse that trend and have a larger middle class.”
Asked about the future of St. Johns County, Reiley said:
“The horizon is really unlimited. I happen to know that there is a significant amount of investment going into Ponte Vedra surrounding some of the existing organizations that are currently in the Ponte Vedra area. Nocatee is already among the fastest growing master plan communities in the nation, and that’s a master plan community of over 17 different neighborhoods.”
The International Management Company is responsible for a new multi-tenant office building now under construction in Nocatee. This 62,751-square-foot building would provide space for new businesses that would like to come to St. Johns County, Reiley said.
“They’ve only begun to build out everything for which they are permitted to build. So that’s another bright spot in this county. There’s a new class-A office building that was announced and is now being constructed also in Nocatee, which is wonderful because it will give us the bricks and mortar space, like this that were in, to house all the new business that would like to come to St. Johns County. That’s been one of our weaknesses in recent years, is that there hasn’t been enough high quality office space developed to meet the demands, but that’s slowly changing.
“The northwest part of St. Johns County has a lot of development going on, a lot of residential and road development happening there, and with the completion of 9B which is a major part of the beltway around the city of Jacksonville, and the construction of what is known as the First Coast Expressway, that is going to have deep deep impacts on the northwest part of the community.
“Moving down a little bit further south to the agricultural part, a lot of people are surprised to learn what a significant agricultural history and current industry that we have in St. Johns County, and that’s primarily in the southwest part of the county. And that’s an industry that is really facing a whole number of challenges, constantly having to re-invent themselves and adapt to changes in markets, conditions and regulations. So they are really an industry under fire, so the chamber is really taking an interest in helping them master their challenges in the coming years, and we certainly hope they remain in the county because they’ve been here for many many decades.
“That kind of brings us around to I-95 which goes right through the spine of our community, and there’s a major widening of I-95 that is planned and funded that will begin in the next year or so. So there’s going to be a lot of additional road capacity that will be brought right to the heart of the county. And then coming back over to St. Augustine, the tourism industry has been, and I don’t mean this to sound like I am exaggerating because it’s really fact-based, the visitors and the convention bureau, their board has about seven business metrics that they analyze at each meeting to monitor the health, the growth or decline of the tourism industry. And for the last many quarters, they have been breaking records across each one of those seven metrics that they analyze the tourism and lodging community. There are about 1,000 new hotel rooms that are slated to be coming into the market in the next couple years. Some are under construction, and some are still in the regulatory approval process.
“I think that we are going to be met with continuing growth, and that’s what makes economic development even more important because the people are going to come here regardless because we have such a wonderful quality of life and such a fantastic public school system. But we want to make sure that they continue to have jobs available if they’re going to come here, and that’s where economic development comes in. We wake up every day thinking about how can I help a company grow today? Are there any impediments that this company or that company is facing that we can help knock down by bringing a solution provider to the table?
“With an unemployment rate as low as it is, they’re going to continue to have challenges to find the right workers for the positions. Not every position or worker that’s available fits every position. So not only do you have to have somebody available or someone who’s maybe not available but maybe feeling a little under employed in their current employment position. Overqualified, and as a result of that they might want to improve that part of their life by switching employers to someone that has a more attractive set of benefits or compensations. So companies are more and more going to be taking employees from each other as the pool becomes shallower and shallower of qualified people who are just simply out of work or looking for work.”
Reiley and the EDC are also looking to improve the water and sewage systems on West King Street in St. Augustine with hopes of attracting new businesses.
“I would be remiss not to also mention to you that St. Johns County and the city of St. Augustine and a number of other stakeholder community members are working very hard to provide jobs in what is called the ‘West Augustine’ are. Part of it is in the city of St. Augustine and part of it is unincorporated St. Johns County but nevertheless, that … has kind of long been, and the term is socioeconomically depressed. And, we want to make sure that that community has every probability of succeeding as is possible, so a number of us are coming together to find funding for extending sewer. In fact, we are in the legislative season right now in Tallahassee and the city of St. Augustine is in Tallahassee asking state government to help fund the sewer expansion so that there will be the necessary infrastructure in West Augustine to support businesses and provide near by jobs for the residents of West Augustine.”