Bass Pro Shops' announcement in December that it would develop its first area Outdoor World store on Gate Petroleum Co. land in St. Johns County has ignited speculation that another commercial development like St. Johns Town Center might be planned there.
The immediate answer from Gate is no, or at least not now.
Triggering the speculation is the realization that the 40-acre Bass Pro Shops site is part of about 5,400 acres Gate bought in 2004 at Interstate 95 and Race Track Road for potential development of residential and commercial uses, including a possible regional shopping mall.
"We are not prepared to proceed at this point in time with that development," Gate Petroleum Vice President Ken Wilson said Thursday.
That's because Jacksonville-based Gate, founded by Herbert Hill Peyton in 1960, is refocusing its priorities on its convenience stores and its construction materials business, Wilson said.
"The bottom line is our business has shifted," Wilson said, explaining that the recession the past several years has turned Gate's attention from large-scale development projects.
"The future of that property some day is intensive commercial, but Gate is not in a rush," he said.
The land was known as the "Cummer Tract" and was bought from the Cummer Trust.
Wilson said Bass Pro Shops generates a lot of traffic. He thinks the speculation about a town center is based on "all the dialogue that went on the last six years."
"Nobody has pulled a trigger on a town center development," Wilson said. The St. Johns Town Center is a popular retail, restaurant and residential area on 240 acres in Duval County at Butler Boulevard and Gate Parkway.
Wilson said Gate Petroleum Co. must determine the highest and best use of its assets and that more capital investment in its land holdings "was not in the company's best interest as we look toward the future."
"We are property owners rather than developers," he said. The company has about 13,000-14,000 acres of undeveloped land in Duval, St. Johns and Nassau counties, he said.
"I seriously doubt that in the future of Gate you will see a large-scale development effort like you've seen in the past," he said. Wilson also is president of GL National Inc., the Gate lands company.
The property is known as the Durbin DRI, which is a development of regional impact. The site is just south of the Duval County line.
The 1,251-acre Durbin property master-plan application showed 2,466 multifamily units, 2 million square feet of commercial space, 1.22 million square feet of office space, a 1,600-seat movie theater and 480 hotel rooms.
A map, dated Nov. 27, 2006, with the application indicated a potential development timeframe of two phases. The first phase was shown as 2008-15 and the second as 2015-22.
Wilson said any future plans would be different from that.
The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners Growth Management Department provided a copy of the preliminary concept master plan for the Durbin DRI, but said the project, whose DRI number is 2007-01, has not been approved.
"Again, we are land owners these days and our focus for the commitment of our capital and resources is in other areas of our company," Wilson said.
Gate celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010, having been founded in 1960 by Herbert Hill Peyton.
Among Gate's developments are Deerwood Park South and Deerwood Park North, which includes the area commonly known as Tinseltown in Southside; Kendall Town Center in Regency, which is anchored by a Walmart Supercenter; and other projects.
Gate also owns resorts, such as the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club; residential developments such as Epping Forest Yacht Club; and dining clubs, such as The River Club.
Wilson said the St. Johns County property at I-95 and Race Track Road was master-planned when the economy was stronger.
Then the recession hit. The national recession officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, although the effects have lingered.
"The economy crashed and the larger retailers took a big hit and had to reel back in and we put the property in our inventory and we haven't done anything with it in six years until Bass Pro Shops came along, expressed an interest and agreed to make the financial commitment. There still remains a lot of work to be done," Wilson said.
Bass Pro finally announces
Speculation had circulated for at least 10 years that Bass Pro Shops was considering a Northeast Florida location.
Bass Pro Shops, based in Springfield, Mo., announced in December that its Northeast Florida store will open in the second quarter of 2014 along I-95 at the new Florida 9B interchange in northern St. Johns County on a site owned by Gate. The store will be within a 40-acre area with a 14-acre lake that will be managed for trophy bass and youth and community events.
The project is expected to create 250 jobs.
Bass Pro Shops also said the opening is subject to completion of the interchange and supporting road system.
St. Johns County Administrator Michael Wanchick said in December that county representatives had been talking with Bass Pro Shops since late summer and have had preliminary discussions. Wanchick anticipated discussions about county incentives would "start in earnest" soon after the first of this year.
"From a land-use planning perspective and an economic-development perspective, it is an exciting project to attract other retail and office development in the county," Wanchick said.
The St. Johns County store will be a free-standing building in a natural setting and feature complementary outdoor facilities, such as a fishing area, he said.
Wanchick said incentives could include infrastructure assistance, a sales tax refund, tax-increment financing or other help. "It has to be mutually beneficial," he said.
The Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund program also is a possibility.
Wanchick said Bass Pro Shops has had conversations with state officials about the completion of Florida 9B and extending it into St. Johns County.
The Florida Department of Transportation website shows the Florida 9B roadway will connect southern Duval County with northern St. Johns County.
"We're excited to open a store in St. Johns County on I-95 — the 'Gateway to Florida,'" said Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris in the December news release.
He said the shop will be an outdoor destination store that will serve "area sportsmen and women as well as the millions of visitors to the Jacksonville area each year."
"It's a beautiful site and we believe we have found the absolute best retail location in the Jacksonville area to build a new super outdoor store. We are very grateful for the support of everyone at Gate Petroleum, St. Johns County and Gov. Rick Scott for this wonderful opportunity," Morris said.
Peyton said in the news release he was "extremely pleased to have a partner such as Bass Pro Shops choose to make a Gate property their first entry into the North Florida market."
"We are proud to have Johnny Morris, the owner of Bass Pro Shops, bring the hard fought success of his family-owned business to our community. This is a hopeful sign for the economy of our area," Peyton said.
In the news release, St. Johns County Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson said, "We were all encouraged by the long-awaited 9B/I-95 interchange being awarded this past August by the FDOT."
"And now there could be no better example of the economic opportunities this major transportation improvement can bring to our state than this announcement by Bass Pro Shops," she said.
Wilson said the Department of Transportation awarded a contract for the interchange work in September with a 36-month timeframe, although the southern connection that would connect into St. Johns County has not been let.
There is indirect secondary-road access to the Bass Pro Shops site from two existing interchanges at St. Augustine Road and Florida 210, he said. However, those do not provide the linkage from I-95 to County Road 2209 sought by the county.
The St. Johns County Administrator's Office prepared a 2013 St. Johns County Legislative Action Plan for presentation in December to the Board of County Commissioners that included the project as a legislative priority.
"State Road 9B - Include in the FDOT Work Program adequate funds to move this critical project from County Road 2209 to I-95 to construction at the earliest possible date; and make the critical State Road 9B roadway eligible for the greatest possible range of funding resources by designating it as a Strategic Intermodal System (SIS) Facility," it said.
While a town center isn't planned anytime soon at the Durbin property, Wilson said Gate "wants to be a good partner with St. Johns County and assist in any reasonable manner we can to see this important connection made to I-95."
Wilson said Gate, county and Department of Transportation representatives have been discussing "the importance of this connection" for seven years.
"If an opportunity is now here, all parties should work hard to try and make it happen," he said.
"When the connection is made, now or in the future, our goal is to be part of the community and a contributor to the economic growth of St. Johns County," he said.
Wilson said that in the early years of owning the property, Gate heard from a lot of retail anchor stores and if the company could "find a way" to complete the proposed Florida 9B interchange at I-95, a town center could have been developed.
"It has always depended on when the interchange came," he said.
Some regulatory permits have been issued the past several years for the property.
He said Gate might sell pieces of the property to developers.
"The desire for us is to not be in the development business. We are managing a portfolio of real estate. I don't see that we would be developers in any way, shape or form of that project," he said.
Wilson said that while the land use was in place for the land, the zoning was not. "There remains a lot of work to be done to do a town center or any large commercial project on this property. Now our focus is to help Johnny Morris and Bass Pro Shops toward its goals and see what will happen from there," he said.
Gate Petroleum said nine years ago in January 2004 that it entered into a contract to buy nearly 5,500 acres in northern St. Johns County, according to a report in The Florida Times-Union. The newspaper said the land straddles I-95 between Race Track Road and Florida 210.
The Times-Union said Gate also acquired the timber rights for the land from Rayonier, a Jacksonville-based manufacturer of forest products.
Wilson said then the acquisitions were "comparable" to the 16,000 acres throughout Northeast Florida that Gate acquired from Stockton, Whatley, Davin & Co. in 1983 for $64 million.
The Race Track Road property is west of the 15,000-acre site for the Nocatee housing and commercial complex.
At the time, the Nocatee site coupled with the Gate purchase signaled a shift in the rural landscape of northern St. Johns County.
Gate turns 53 this year
In 1960, Peyton opened the first Gate service station in Northwest Jacksonville.
Gate says on its gatepetro.com site that the name was derived from the 1960s Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce slogan, “Jacksonville — Gateway to Florida.” Gate opened stores throughout the Southeast.
Because of the 1972 oil crisis, management decided to diversify and acquire unrelated businesses. Gate now operates eight concrete plants in Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas.
It also owns and operates four private clubs — the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, Epping Forest Yacht Club, The Lodge & Club and The River Club.
Past and present real estate holdings throughout the Southeast include the 1,000-acre Deerwood Park and the Riverplace Tower Downtown.
Service stations remain Gate’s core business. Gate supplies fuel service to 225 stores and owns and operates 74 of those.
Gate employs about 3,500 people throughout all of its operations in eight Southeastern states.
A year ago, Herbert Peyton stepped down from his leadership role and his son, former Mayor John Peyton, was named the company president. John Peyton served two terms as Jacksonville mayor from 2003-11.