If you’re a football fan, you may already know that the New York Jets first pick in the NFL draft was Calvin Pryor, a junior safety from the University of Louisville. On the night of the draft, in Port St. Joe, FL, Calvin’s hometown, there was a big screen TV, a cover band, and free barbecue, all set up in a parking lot with ocean views, to celebrate. We happened to be in town for the party and for our first State of the South 2014 on-the-road visit. Nearly everyone we talked to either invited us to the draft celebration or asked us if we’d been there. Athletics is one thing that brings this small town (population 3,400) together across all the lines that might divide a rural community in the South—race, class, politics, power—and Calvin’s success was a point of pride that everyone could agree on.
While Port St. Joe High School has had a few athletes go pro over the years, it’s not exactly a solid advancement strategy for the city’s young people (no matter what the kids think when they take the field in the popular pee-wee leagues). For decades, the path to the middle class in Port St. Joe was a job at the St. Joe Company paper mill—or one of the other supporting (and St. Joe-owned) industries like the railroad or the phone company. But with the 1998 closure of the mill and the departure of another industry—Arizona Chemical—in the early 2000s, Port St. Joe has struggled to sustain the population and prospects for goods jobs beyond the seasonal tourism economy. Right now, government is the largest employer (municipal services, schools, corrections).