The final 35 miles of the St. Johns River runs through Jacksonville, the largest city by area in the United States, with a population of over one million. Much of the economic base of Jacksonville depends on the river: Northeast Florida’s strong military presence operates on the river and 18,000,000 tons of goods are shipped in an out of Jacksonville annually.
The military presence also has a significant economic impact on the region that provides stability and diversity within the local community. Area military installations such as Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Naval Station Mayport, Kings Bay Naval Base, Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, Naval Aviation Depot Jacksonville and Marine Corps Blount Island Command provide employment to more than 50,000 active duty, reserve and civilian men and women.
Of the personnel who exit the military each year, more than 3,000 choose to remain in the region, providing a steady stream of highly skilled and disciplined workers for area businesses.
There's little doubt the St. Johns River is the trade engine that drives Jacksonville. While its economic impact may be hard to quantify, the peripheral industries the river supports and affects are abundant.
As the passageway to the Atlantic Ocean, the river is home to 30 commercial passenger and cargo terminals, five military/government facilities, four commercial ship repair/construction facilities, three power generating stations and six navigational and vessel support facilities. The Jacksonville Port Authority's terminals alone handled a record-setting 8.4 million tons of cargo in 2005, including more than 544,000 vehicles - making the port one of the largest vehicle-handling ports in the nation. JAXPORT also supports more than 45,000 jobs in Northeast Florida.
From a recreation, entertainment and leisure perspective, the river is the cornerstone of Jacksonville's diverse outdoor activities. The NFL billed Super Bowl XXXIX as the 'Super Bowl on the River' allowing guests to experience luxury cruise ship accommodations and festivities right on the water. NFL officials estimate the Super Bowl infused anywhere from $250 to $300 million into Jacksonville's economy last year. According to the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, Northeast Florida has also gained the largest number of new jobs in more than five years since hosting the game.
'Without the river, the Super Bowl would not have come to Jacksonville, plain and simple,' said Jerry Mallott, executive vice president of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce. 'The idea of having cruise ships on the river is what captured the imagination of the NFL owners who selected Jacksonville as the Super Bowl site. Not only did the cruise ships provide the extra hotel rooms we needed, but they also provided an exciting and vibrant downtown atmosphere on the river.'
The river also supports a variety of outdoor activities, including boating, fishing, bird and wildlife viewing, parks and a slew of special events. The St. Johns is the region's most significant source of shrimp, blue crab and catfish. It also supports a significant sports fishery industry with large-mouth bass, crappie, bream, redfish, trout and flounder. Many of the community's signature events take place along the riverfront, including the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, World of Nations, the city's spectacular Fourth of July Fireworks and the Spring Music Festival.
'I have people come from all over the world to fish here,' said Vic Tison, owner of Vic2Fish and Adventures, a charter boat company in Jacksonville. 'With 300 waterways between Clapboard and Sisters creeks, this region is one of the biggest draws for out-of-towners.'
Some estimates place the river's economic value to the region at $2.5 billion, according to St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. With approximations that high, it's no wonder the river's health and sustainability has spurred so much civic discourse. The river's economic value, especially for residential and recreational uses, could be significantly degraded by poor water quality.