By Suanne Z. Thamm
June 14, 2022
“Today we have reason to take heart. Fernandina Beach has one of the most action-oriented Commissions since the 1970’s. Commissioners are pushing forward on many of these projects that have been kicked down the road by previous commissions that feared political fallout. I believe that the current commission is committed to complete long-stalled but publicly demanded capital improvements.”
Great vintages come from grapes that have been carefully nurtured, harvested, crushed and pressed for aging in barrels. When master vintners give the thumbs up, the wines are ready to be uncorked and savored. If uncorked too soon, the wines are mediocre; if left to age a long time, the cost goes up and the audience that can appreciate the wine diminishes.
While it might not seem apparent, there is a similarity in the care and nurturing of whines that we see every day in our cities — whines that are spelled with that extra letter “h.” In the absence of master vintners, our city leaders must decide which of the many whines they hear regularly from various segments of the community should be selected and processed. They must determine the best and most cost effective way to address them that both meets the long term needs of the city and the immediate desires of the citizens. A quick decision is not necessarily the best decision. But a long, drawn out decision making or implementation process is full of risks. Expensive studies and plans can come to naught if newly elected officials do not support them.
In 1975 Fernandina Beach adopted a plan to revitalize its commercial downtown and make its historic architecture the center piece of the urban landscape. While other communities were bulldozing their Victorian Era commercial centers to take advantage of federal urban renewal money, Fernandina Beach took what was then the revolutionary approach of celebrating their old buildings and making their history a selling point to attract a burgeoning tourism industry.
With a common vision held by the business community, local preservationists and city government, downtown Fernandina Beach reinvented itself from a collection of shabby buildings housing stores with uninspired product lines into the Centre Street you see today. Planners rejected the notion that downtowns needed to cater to automobiles and embraced the idea of walkable communities — revolutionary for the 1970’s.
During the period 1972-1975, planners held public meetings to take public input. Community leaders successfully sought two sizable federal grants. And proponents of the plan to save both downtown businesses and historic buildings worked diligently to overcome opposition. The final plan, approved by the City Commission in 1975, would forever change the appearance of Centre Street. Actual construction, begun in 1977 was completed in one year.
From identification of the problem to the dedication of the completed project took 6 years. To many of us today, that seems like warp speed.
Let us compare and contrast the successful efforts of the 1970’s with perhaps the most aggravating and contentious public works project that has dominated the city for 40 years: improving the downtown waterfront. The general consensus is that the waterfront has much in common with Key West’s Mallory Square, especially when it comes to the glorious views of sunsets. But poor maintenance of both publicly and privately owned properties has resulted in an unsightly waterfront. How could this situation have been allowed to exist at the foot of our beautifully revitalized Centre Street for 40 years?
Well, I’ll tell you.
When I lead tours through the Historic District for the Amelia Island Museum of History I always tell my group that Fernandina Beach is not your typical Florida city. I tell them that when the residents of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone retire, they do not head off to Miami or The Villages or Clearwater. No, indeed. They come to Fernandina Beach, where all the women are strong, the men relatively good looking and the children above average.
In the case of Fernandina Beach, however, I would add a couple more qualities:
- Politically aware residents are relatively well educated and financially secure;
- They are both action oriented and change averse;
- And 2-3 of them are convinced that they are the sole possessors of the secret decoder ring that holds the answer to every issue facing the city.
If there is something worse than living in a place where no one seems to care about what goes on in local government, it is living in a place where many people care passionately — but only about a single issue to which their plan is so obviously the best solution.
The word compromise is not popular.
Enter city government and elected city commissioners, who wrestle with all the competing priorities, plans, and egos in order to fashion a solution that allows the city to move forward. And just when it seems they have reached agreement on an implementation plan that is feasible, affordable, and acceptable to a large segment of the population, new voices join the debate. These voices belong to people who either just woke up to what has been going on for the past many years or from those who moved to the city within the past few weeks and demand input.
And don’t forget city elections. With each election cycle new commissioners, unfamiliar with history and beholden to a certain set of the population who elected them, decide that they either can’t trust decisions made by previous commissions or that they must find a way to put their own mark on the project.
Can we learn anything from what looks to many like a Groundhog Day exercise? I think we can, and here are 3 lessons for starters:
1. There is no such thing as a perfect plan. But there must be an end to information gathering and analysis. Otherwise we are in a perpetual loop of inactivity while important problems only grow worse and solutions become more expensive;
2. Everyone will never agree on everything, including the commissioners and the community. Waiting for the naysayers to either move away or die is not a strategy.
3. The quicker implementation can follow decision making, the greater the odds for success.
And Fernandina Beach has proven that ambitious plans can be implemented: remember the revitalization plans of the 1970’s.
A couple of years ago City Manager Dale Martin introduced Fernandina Beach to something called the National Citizen Survey, through which a random sample of citizens answer a series of questions to determine community satisfaction with local government. During the second and most recent survey, about 70 percent of respondents rated the overall quality of city provided services as good or excellent. But while three-quarters of respondents gave thumbs up to the overall quality of service provided by city employees, only 40 percent of respondents appeared to be positive about city leadership and governance. This marked a decline from the 2017 survey as well as in comparison with the national average.
While the survey did not dig down into the reasons for the low level of confidence, I surmise based upon anecdotal evidence that citizens are frustrated with what over the years some have dubbed the Fernandina Two Step — one step forward and two steps back — in dancing around important community priorities, such as improving the downtown waterfront, replacing or repairing beach walkovers, and even finally finishing those unfinished aspects of the 1975 Downtown Revitalization Plan — like opening the Alachua Street rail crossing.
In short: the city is taking way too much time to serve those whines. Why? Because solutions to difficult problems are fraught with political minefields city leaders would prefer to avoid.
But I choose to believe that the glass of public whines is soon to be at least half empty here in Fernandina Beach. Today we have reason to take heart. Fernandina Beach has one of the most action-oriented Commissions since the 1970’s. Commissioners are pushing forward on many of these projects that have been kicked down the road by previous commissions that feared political fallout. I believe that the current commission is committed to complete long-stalled but publicly demanded capital improvements.
My hope is that today’s commissioners can truly do what their predecessors failed to do. And to get work underway before November, when we face the possibility of replacing two old hands with two newcomers who may want to start the whole process all over again.
A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.
So let’s serve those old whines this year.
We can then put new whines in new bottles after the November elections.