By Arlene Filkoff
Main Street Fernandina Beach
June 25, 2020
For those of you who lived in Fernandina Beach in the 1970’s, your memories of the downtown area are quite different than it looks today. There is a reason for that. Prior to the 70’s downtown was a thriving area FPU, Sears, Winn Dixie, all your medical doctors were downtown. Then the development started on the south end and downtown started to drastically change. Many businesses and professional services moved to the middle of the island and downtown suffered greatly. Around this same time, we lost a great landmark, The Keystone Hotel. Downtown was losing its ability to survive.
There were visionaries living here who saw the handwriting on the wall. We were losing our history and businesses downtown. They went to work and developed much of what you see today. 1950’s facades came off our gorgeous buildings, utilities went underground, lights went up, sidewalks put in AND Centre Street was serpentine!! This work was spearheaded by The Amelia Island Restoration Foundation who also secured National Registry spots for many of our sites around town you see today. They also created the historic district to protect and restore our history. Their stated mission was to keep our downtown vital by attracting historic tourism. You can learn more about this era in the book, Saving Fernandina by Ms. Suanne Thamm. This book can be found at the Book Loft, the Museum, and Story and Song. We all should remain eternally grateful to these brave souls who wanted to make things better by preserving our strengths. Without our thriving downtown, you can bet we’d be paying more to live here.
While this project was going on locally, there was also a recognition on a national level that historic downtowns were dying. Towns were losing economic benefits of small businesses and also losing historic resources. The National Main Street was founded for the same reason our local visionaries worked so hard.
When our local project was completed. There was concern that this work must be protected and they believed they had put the right mechanisms in place to ensure that would happen. Merchants had fulltime jobs along with trying to stay on top of an evolving community. In the 90’ the City wanted to contribute to the downtown appearance. They added additional sidewalks and lighting that was different than what was originally designed. They only made it to 3rd street when an election year and new commissioners decided not to continue. This is why there are different looks throughout the Main Street district, Both are attractive, however, businesses between 4th-8th do not look like they are part of the same district.
Becoming an accredited Main Street organization at a state and national level is difficult. In fact, in the 80”s local merchants attempted this and were not successful. It requires a great deal of community and local government support. Without the support of both, it will not be successful. That goal was achieved in late 2015. The purpose behind the City’s application, joined by the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Development Council was to bring new recognition to our downtown area and to advocate for the property owners and businesses in the district. Fernandina Main Street boundaries started small outlined by Ash, Front, Alachua and 8th. The organization has become very engaged in all aspects of downtown life. Visitors have remarked they came to Fernandina for the beach but will remember downtown as being unique and full of life.
Fernandina Main Street organization is not here to replace other groups or people. Since we’ve been established we have:
- Sponsored events which bring people and business to downtown. Our sponsorship allows these events to be free to the public.
- Some but not all are: Concourse Road Rally,8 Flags Car show, Islandstock.
- During the pandemic shutdowns, Fernandina Main Street became the information-sharing hub for our downtown businesses.
- We communicated directly with Business owners keeping them aware of the ever-changing virus and about the CARES Act .
- We chaired conferences on CARES for businesses with the SBDC resources.
- We sent out surveys to business owners to see what their immediate needs were and will be for the future.
- Hosted preservation award ceremonies recognizing property owners who continue to preserve the history of downtown.
- Tours of the Downtown Courthouse. One of the first restoration projects of the Restoration Foundation. Featuring the current Foundation members and tours by Judge Foster.
- Implemented a wayfinding system after several public meetings for input and direction from our local businesses who chose to participate.
- Assisted 20 or so property owners who qualify for historic tax credits and followed through until it was completed.
- Implemented new plantings throughout downtown by working closely with the Flowering Fernandina, a selfless group of volunteers and with the city.
- Created the butterfly garden downtown for all the public to enjoy by the depot with donations from Lindy’s Imetry, the high school Key Club and Liberty Landscaping. The bricks were
- Original brinks from Centre Street provided by the city. An education sign with a plaque donated by the Camellia Garden Club will be implemented soon.
- Virtual Shrimp fest was created with the technical assistance of some of our very talented high school artist and was very well received by the public.
- Managing the bench replacement program for the downtown area.
- Developing economic vitality strategies including webinars and workshops for businesses in the Main Street district.
- Applying for grants to pay for the many things we provide to the Downtown area.
We began to explore an expansion of the Fernandina Main Street boundaries for a few reasons. The B&B’s were not originally included. Neither were some of our beautiful historic churches. We also knew that the gateways to the historic downtown, Atlantic and 8th street are critical. Our expanded boundaries, approved by the City Commission and by the State of Florida Main Street organization include all of these sites and places. We plan and hope to be their advocate. Our goal is to PROTECT what is unique to Fernandina not destroy it.
There are some misconceptions regarding Fernandina Main Street. We are not trying to cancel events such as Sounds On Centre. Main Street does sit the Special Events Committee which the City Manager authorized, but we are NOT a Voting member of this group. The downtown businesses ask us to advocate for them when events are scheduled to try to minimize the downtown impact for parking etc. Every year we survey the local business owners ask them to let us know what events they would want Fernandina Main Street to sponsor. This has been this way for the 3 years I have been here. Most event organizers are willing to accommodate the business owners after they understand the impact it has on small downtown businesses. We are also not trying to build a casino on the waterfront! We are here to protect the integrity of our downtown historic area and allow small business owners to thrive.
When we held a workshop with the City Commission to discuss the possibility of expanding our boundaries, they asked us to make it bigger than we had proposed. Recognizing that expanding the boundaries was a large job for Fernandina Main Street the Commissioners voted on re-upping Main Street with a 3-year financial commitment and the expansion itself in one vote. The city sent a message that the city of Fernandina Beach is in support of Fernandina Main Street. We work hard to create a beautiful downtown with the help of many volunteers and local businesses.
Not everything stated on social media is true! It is of interest to me is that I have offered to correct many statements, many times, and no one has taken me up on it. If you really believe that some effort or group is doing the wrong thing, try the old fashioned way – talk to them!! You just might like what you hear and join us in helping to make Fernandina an even better place to live!