PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (BP)–When Florida Coast Paper Co. LLC shut down and laid off its 600 employees in August 1998, it was one more economic blow that Port St. Joe didn’t need. The town’s box plant had already folded, and a statewide net ban had closed down a fisheries operation about a year before that.
The loss of the paper mill has had a domino effect on other Port St. Joe industries, said Cecil Pettis, who now is ‘semi-retired’ after 20 years as an electronics worker at the mill.
The railroad, which depended on the paper mill for a lion’s share of its business, cut back to just a handful of employees. The phone company laid off workers. Retail stores, restaurants and other businesses have been impacted, as well as schools and churches.
Gulf County leads the state in unemployment — 10.3 percent in February, compared to a state average of about 4 percent — and that doesn’t count the people who are underemployed, Pettis said. The papermakers knew their jobs well, but didn’t have another craft, he explained. So many are now doing ‘piecemeal’ work for substantially lower wages. Others are driving as far as Alabama or Georgia to work.
“You get [work] wherever you can,” Pettis said. “You don’t overspend, because you don’t have it coming in.”
Some people have had to sell homes, he added. And they’re the “lucky” ones. Others are trying to sell homes and can’t find a buyer.
Despite the hard times, Pettis believes “the Lord’s still blessing this town.” And his church — First Baptist of Port St. Joe — is still committed to sharing God’s blessings through its financial support of missions.
Last year the church allocated more than one-fourth of its total budget for missions, including $64,249 — 17.5 percent of undesignated receipts — given through the Cooperative Program. The Port St. Joe church budgets an additional 3 percent for Southern Baptist international missions and 3 percent for North American missions, channeled through the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings; 3 percent for Northwest Coast Baptist Association; and 1.5 percent for local missions.
Neither Pettis nor James ‘Buddy’ Caswell, the church’s minister of music and youth, can remember any serious consideration of cutting back missions giving, even though the church has had to cut back in other areas.
Caswell said that the church’s missions giving has been strongly influenced by its senior adults, a generation whose commitment to missions has been nurtured through Woman’s Missionary Union and other missions organizations.
Before the mill closed, Caswell noted, the church typically went over its annual budget by as much as $40,000 to $50,000. Now, even with the budget scaled back, the congregation is not quite meeting its goal.
Church members are helping to offset the financial losses by volunteering to do some jobs that previously were done by paid outside help, Pettis said.
The congregation had purchased land for expansion, Caswell noted, but long-range plans for building a new worship center, educational space and a family life center had to be put on hold.
Not getting to go ahead with the family life center was a disappointment, Caswell acknowledged, noting the town does not have facilities like a skating rink or bowling alley for youth and family recreation.
In addition to losing financial resources, First Baptist and other Port St. Joe churches have lost some members as laid-off workers moved away to take jobs elsewhere.
“We’ve definitely lost some good families … some key people we hated to see go,” Caswell said.
It’s been a loss not only to the churches, but to the city and county, Pettis added, because these Christian families were also involved in various community activities such as Little League.
But population losses have not been drastic, and the church-oriented town is still a good place to live, Pettis said.
And if new industries would come into the area, “we could supply a good work force,” he said.
But prospects of new industry are just “fair,” he said. “We’re an out-of-the-way place without a major transportation artery out of here.
“Sooner or later, there’ll be something for people here to do,” Pettis predicted. “Hope we can hang around that long. With the Lord’s help,