2 min read November 2021 — St. Johns County is the second-fastest growing county in the state of Florida and it also happens to be the wealthiest. In an interview with Invest:, County Administrator Hunter Conrad discusses the unique economic opportunities within the county, initiatives to support the local population and businesses and his bullish outlook.
What economic opportunities are presented by fostering the No. 1 school district in Florida?
For many years, our school district has been named one of the best in the State of Florida. In addition to the many other attributes associated with St. Johns County, this accolade makes our area very appealing to families seeking top-quality education for their children and grandchildren. We repeatedly hear from local business owners that a highly-ranked public school system is one of the most critical factors in choosing a location to start a business. St. Johns County provides that for them and their employees. As a result, these businesses moving to our area bring high-wage jobs, attracting a skilled, educated workforce.
How do you support local veterans and small businesses?
St. Johns County is home to multiple military facilities and operations, including the Florida National Guard Headquarters Annex, the Florida Department of Military Affairs headquartered at the St. Francis Barracks, the National Guard Armory, and the newly constructed VA community-based outpatient clinic. The proximity to these military facilities puts St. Johns County in a unique position to support over 20,000 veterans that live in the county. I definitely feel that we have a great responsibility to support our veterans. We have recently implemented additional programs to provide as much assistance as possible to ensure they experience a high quality of life. The County partnered with a developer to dedicate a percentage of multi-family affordable rental units to veterans. St. Johns County also became the host county for Fire Watch, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end veterans’ suicide. In addition to a local nursing home for veterans and VA Clinic, we also have an outstanding Veterans Services Office that works closely with the Veterans Council of St. Johns County to provide continuous support for their efforts.
Additionally, although we are the second-fastest growing community in the state and one of the Top 10 in the country, we have a small-town community feel where people want to support local businesses. From a governmental standpoint, we want to do what we can about reducing regulations and bureaucracy, getting out of the way, and letting capitalism and the free market pave the way for growth within our small business sector. Economic development is one of the top priorities of our Board of County Commissioners, and our staff is always looking at opportunities to assist small businesses with their success in St. Johns County.
What is being done to support the aging population in St. Johns County?
With more than one-fifth of our residents over the age of 65 in St. Johns County, we have taken several measures to support this unique population within our community. We have a number of hospitals and standalone emergency facilities either under construction, approved for construction, or recently built throughout the county. Given the last couple of years, we all know that the medical field is primed for continued growth, and we’re excited to bolster that expanding sector. This will, in turn, provide better support for our aging population while simultaneously boosting the local economy. St. Johns County also has a great partnership with our local Council on Aging, which operates six community centers in our area and provides resources for the senior community and caregivers.
What is the state of the housing market in St. Johns County?
What we’re seeing is very different from what has been witnessed historically. People are worried about a potential bubble in the housing market; however, this is a very different housing market compared to 2008, which was based on unconventional financing. Today’s market is based on cash buying. While St. Johns County continues to see increased pricing in the local housing market month after month, today’s market is more protected against waves. In June, we had more single-family unit applications than ever before in our county, and we see no signs of those numbers dropping anytime soon.
What is St. Johns County doing to ensure an adequate workforce?
Not only are we the second-fastest growing community in Florida, we are also the wealthiest county in the state according to a 2019 report by 24/7 Wall St. This makes the workforce a significant challenge because for many people, including public servants, it’s very expensive to live here. Our Board of County Commissioners has increased its focus on workforce housing, recently approving two housing developments that will help our workers find affordable homes. Our workforce housing initiatives allow for units to be sold around the $240,000 mark, rather than the median price of $350,000 to $400,000. There are also some moderate- to low-income rentals that are also available, including apartment complexes with rental costs under $1,000 per month.
Despite the cost of housing, we do boast a high quality of life that many prospective St. Johns County residents find appealing. Between our proximity to beaches and other recreational facilities, historic landmarks, and top-rated school district, we attract new residents eager to work close to home here.
How do you strike the balance between quality of life and economic growth?
It is a challenge. The idea for any fast-growing community is to make sure you plan for the future and invest in infrastructure. We do want to see growth, and we want to see people investing in our community, but we want to make sure we’re prepared for it.
That being said, part of our high quality of life is having enough places for our residents to patronize for their goods and services. Grocery stores, retail, restaurants, and entertainment are all vital to this community because they appreciate the convenience of having these locations closer to home. We look forward to bringing additional businesses to the area that our residents have been traveling out of St. Johns County to find. Additionally, we know larger companies want to come here also. One recent example is the American Roll-On Roll-Off Carrier Group (ARC), relocating its corporate headquarters from Parsippany, New Jersey, to Ponte Vedra Beach earlier this year. As I touched on briefly before, economic growth brings jobs to our community, many of which are high-wage and encompass a wide variety of skill sets from technology and manufacturing to office-based positions. Again, many St. Johns County residents travel to surrounding counties for work. We want to focus on bringing more of these jobs to our area so employees can enjoy a better work-life balance by being closer to their families.
What is your outlook for the local economy?
I’m very bullish on the opportunity that is here. Our economy will continue to thrive for a long time. Money is being invested here because of our healthcare system, small businesses, stakeholders, school district, and leadership. This is a very exciting time for St. Johns County. We will continue to protect our natural resources, encourage economic growth, diversify our economic portfolio, and support the local economy by deregulating and helping businesses thrive as much as possible.
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