7801 Deercreek Club Rd., Jacksonville, FL 32256

‘Spiderweb’ of challenges face officials as St. Johns County booms

‘Spiderweb’ of challenges face officials as St. Johns County booms

Scott Maynard says his job is like a giant “spiderweb.” As Economic Development Director for the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, Maynard struggles each day to find a balance between the challenges posed by the expansive growth in population within St. Johns County and the county’s potential to become a great place to live and work. Figuring out how to cope with the cost of housing, construction, population and growth management, education, workforce development, safety, and security are just a few of the challenges Maynard faces each day. “It’s all like a spiderweb that comes together to make this the kind of community we all love,” he said.

Maynard discussed several aspects of his “spiderweb” during a “Lunch & Learn” event hosted by NEFAR’s St. Johns Council at Donovan’s Irish Pub June 1.

A relative newcomer to St. Johns County, Maynard has lived in the new RiverTown community for just over a year. He and his family were fortunate to lock in the price of their home prior to the escalating prices sparked by COVID-19. And like himself, the Mississippi native said, all of his neighbors are new to Northeast Florida and hail from places like California, Colorado, Utah, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Tennessee, and other parts of Florida. “It is a wide range of people, and everyone brought their job with them,” he said, noting that he finds it unusual that after his neighbors moved in, they now desire to slam the door behind them. “When we get together in the neighborhood, the feedback I get is, ‘We have to do something to control this growth. We need to slow these people down.’ Yet, all my neighbors have been here less than a year! They want to build a wall and close the door at the county line,” he said.

However, as one of the fastest growing counties in Florida and the nation, that is certainly NOT going to happen in St. Johns County. Although Maynard’s neighbors frequently make him conscious of St. Johns growing pains, he spends his time focusing on the fact that the county is full of opportunity and great potential. The trick is to understand what is coming and manage it, he said. “We are not Atlanta where everyone is already on top of each other,” he said. “We are not Nashville where they had 300 people a day moving into the greater Nashville area and were gridlocked. If we plan ahead, manage our growth, we have some wonderful potential.”


New Infrastructure


The First Coast Expressway, a 46-mile, multi-lane, limited access toll road, will do much to help alleviate the pressures sparked by a rapidly growing population, Maynard said. The new connector road is slated to link I-10 West of Jacksonville with I-95 by wandering through Duval and Clay County, going over a new Shands Bridge in Green Cove Springs, and linking up with the north-south interstate in St. Johns County. So far, three projects comprising Segment 1 of the road are complete and were finished in 2019. Segment 2 began that same year and is currently under construction. Construction on Segment 3 is planned to begin in 2022 or 2023 and should be finished in 2030, and the new Shands Bridge should be complete by 2029 at a cost of $334 million, according to the Florida Department of Transportation website. The bridge will be a four-lane crossover the St. Johns River south of where the current Shands Bridge stands. Sections of the existing Shands bridge are supposed to remain standing and can be used by fishermen, Maynard said.

“If you look at the growth near I-95 over the past 20 years, just think of what this connector will do,” he said. “RiverTown will no longer be in the country. When I moved here a year ago, the closest grocery store was eight miles away. Now we have one right outside the neighborhood, which is nice.”


Growing pains


Specifically, the population of St. Johns County has grown 23.7% over the past year. In 2021, approximately 275,000 residents lived in the county and now it has grown to at least 300,000, Maynard said. “Our estimate is by 2026 it should be 318,000,” he said, noting the county is getting younger. “The average age in the 2020 Census was 43.3 years. Last year there were 6,182 single-family building permits pulled at the county. That is 2.86 people per household. That is 17,680 new residents in one year! The average household income is $90,000. In early 2021, the median price of a house in the county was $338,000. Now it is what? $540,000, $560, 000? (NEFAR Market stats for April put the median cost of a single-family home at $565,000.) I’m sure that will stabilize, but historically prices are not going to fall,” Maynard explained.

Meanwhile, unemployment in the county is at a historic low of 1.7%. “This is ridiculously unheard of. It just doesn’t get that low,” Maynard said. “It’s good because everybody who is looking for a job pretty much has a job, but it is bad because everywhere you look there is a help wanted sign.”


Ad valorem Taxes and Infrastructure


Approximately 87.3% of the ad valorem taxes collected in St. Johns County come from residential rooftops, said Maynard, noting that number should be no higher than 75%. “Maintaining our infrastructure in the county is not sustainable in the long term just from rooftops,” he said. “My job is to bring in more business and industry, manufacturing, healthcare. We need more opportunities where we can shift that tax burden from the residential to commercial.”

To help cover the cost of infrastructure, a 1% increase in sales tax in St. Johns County will be up for a vote in November. The money from this tax will be earmarked for infrastructure and road improvements, Maynard said, noting the tax is needed because the county lowered impact fees years ago.

“If you go back to 2008-2009, the county had to lay off 200 people. You can’t have a knee-jerk reaction when things go badly quickly. “In order to stimulate growth, the county commissioners lowered the impact fees developers pay. It is very difficult to add that fee back,” he said. “The positive thing is that 40% of the sales tax generated will come from people who live outside of our county. For the residents, that means we are going to get 100% of the income and only have to pay 60% of the taxes. The increase in sales tax will go to help alleviate a lot of the strain that you see every day.”


Building a Sustainable Workforce


Another interesting statistic is the number of St. Johns County residents who leave home to work in adjacent counties. Approximately 66,546 people work elsewhere, he said, with only 40, 982 residents from other counties venturing into St. Johns for employment and 38,000 St. Johns County residents remaining in their home county to work. Part of Maynard’s job is to understand why St. Johns County residents would leave the county to find work in the first place. “Is Jacksonville paying more? Are First Responders and teachers making more if they leave here? If so, what can we do to incentivize them to stay here? If we can keep them working locally, it is less miles driven on our roads every day,” he said, noting that might help with traffic congestion in the county.

Attracting an educated and well-paid workforce to the county is also part of Maynard’s job. He notes that five new medical facilities are now under construction or have been built recently within its borders. “All of them are going to require large numbers of employees. We are working with local schools and colleges locally and across the state to identify and attract people to live here and fill those jobs,” he said, adding that he is constantly trying to think of ways to highlight what is in the county and educational pathways to attract young residents. One way might be to have young students hang out with REALTORS® or mortgage brokers for a day so they can see up close the importance of their role, he said.

Realizing that many new St. Johns County residents brought their jobs with them when they moved here, Maynard said he sets his mind to their spouses and how they may be recruited to remain close to home. “We want to be able to recruit them, so they are not among the 60,000 that leave the county for work,” he said.


Workforce and Affordable Housing


Maynard said he has had conversations with the St. Johns County Sheriff and officials from Flagler Health about convening a small task force to identify and define tangible solutions to bring more affordable housing into the county. “There are some models out there,” he said point to Historic Tours of America, which built employee housing in Key West near its corporate headquarters, and the Walt Disney Corporation which established Snow White Village for its employees to live and pay rent through payroll deductions. “There are opportunities that we hope to provide through public/private partnerships to address workforce housing so that people will be able to live here,” he said.

Inflation and supply chain issues are also a challenge, particularly as they relate to new construction. Where a year ago it might take six months to complete a new home, today it takes at least 12 to 18 months, he said.