(Editor’s note: I’ve been thinking of creating a regular section in the Observer that asks for thoughtful, well-written and (very important in this uncivil age) civil commentary about our community. They’ve dropped into my lap now and then, and so did this one. It’s a good example of what I have in mind. And so the commentary section begins. I’m not looking for things I agree with — quite the contrary, I’m hoping for quality, whatever the author’s view. I’d be very glad to receive submissions. This author is Gerald Decker, a retired technology executive who moved here with his wife 15 years ago to run a small business. He is a Vietnam veteran and has served as past chair of the Marina Advisory Board.)
By Gerald Decker
Fernandina Beach was a working community—historically blue collar, with two paper mills, a port, and a fishing marina that created the modern shrimping industry. The values and economy typical of a working class village are being gradually lost and are being replaced by a cosmopolitan framework. The underlying cause for this is, of course, the beach.
Now, the beach is a good asset, not a bad one. It created Fernandina in the first place, brings in tourists and their dollars, which benefit local merchants, and now drives the local economy. Many towns of 14,000 have no similar asset and struggle to survive. This town is an exception. Indeed, the word “beach” was added to the town name in the 1950s to attract travelers on the newly built Interstate 95. It put the town on the map, and it has become a destination ever since—for good and bad.
We know what we have been—the question is what do we become? There are groups, such as Conserve Amelia Now and Amelia Tree Conservancy, that essentially advocate for constancy: stay as we are and preserve what we have. Can this be achieved given the natural forces at play with climate change? Weather and water will change this island over the next few decades. Indeed, the melting of a major iceberg off Greenland alone will raise the ocean level 10 inches in the next few years, according to some scientists.
Further, the median age of the 21,000 housing units on the island is 30 years. While some 800 are historic—built before 1939, only 2,200 are less than 10 years old. Life expectancy for a home on a barrier island is lower than inland, clearly, and many homes here are reaching the age where significant repairs, i.e. costs, become a reality. Combined with climate change, the ability to maintain constancy is doubtful. It seems that Mother Nature is forcing us to do something constructive—if only to maintain what we already have. The question is whether we must do more?
The city’s population has changed over the last 30 years from a largely blue collar to a much more affluent, white collar mix. Housing, food, and taxes are more expensive—the cost of living is 21% higher than the national average. Families are largely priced out unless the breadwinner(s) are professional or work in Jacksonville. Well-off retirees make up an ever increasing presence, with over 30% of residents 65 or older. The number of snowbirds has exploded, as well, with many homes occupied during the winter months and vacant (or rented) during the hot and humid summers.
Travel and moving guides extol the many benefits of local life—the beach, great weather, restaurants, parks, golf and other outdoors activities. They also point out the drawback: cost of living, danger of hurricanes, flood surges and risks of climate change (most areas are less than 25 feet above sea level). For all this promotion, the population has not increased dramatically, only by about 2,000 since 2010, and a new trend is emerging—people leaving the city, forced out by housing costs, taxes, traffic and other concerns. For a small town, any shifts have a major impact. As we approach mid-century it is quite likely the economic, social, and meteorological forces at play will be the dominant drivers of our future. To a large extent, we are simply along for the ride—a ride that began decades ago.
But, for now, who are we? We are the ones caught between the tensions of constancy and expansion. We are the residents of a small “discovered” resort town. We are the ones left behind when all the tourists, snowbirds, conventions, and groups have departed. We are the ones who pay for the preservation and upkeep of the amenities our visitors enjoy. We clean up after the party, so to speak, only to make ready for the next.