City Manager’s Comments – The Riverfront

dale martin

By Dale Martin, City Manager

An interesting facet of working at City Hall is the abundance of historic records. Many of the City’s documents have been converted from their original paper copies to a digital format. While in most ways, this provides for easier storage, it also makes “stumbling” across an intriguing record more unlikely.

Chief Hurley shared such a document with me recently: the Comprehensive City Plan Fernandina Beach, Florida 1961, Volume Two. That document was fascinating enough that I subsequently located and read the companion volume one. Volume one (approximately 50 pages) discussed the City’s history, economics, population, land use, and streets. Volume two (approximately 70 pages) discussed downtown, parking, facilities, neighborhoods, zoning, and capital improvements. Both documents included a variety of supportive graphics, with volume two also including several period photographs.

Parts of the document truly demonstrate how far the City has come since 1961: the school populations are divided into “White” and “Non-White” schools, a vivid reminder of how such division is still within the living memory of many current older residents. A recently erected display in the City’s Peck Center, developed by the City, the Amelia Island Museum of History, and several dedicated individuals, illustrates the significant impact and value of the “non-white” residents to this community.

Other parts of the document, in contrast, demonstrate how little progress has happened elsewhere (and significantly less important than the progress described above). A picture in the middle of volume two has the caption, “The Municipal Park and Marina will convert this site into one of beauty and attractiveness.” The picture itself depicts the debris-strewn shoreline of N. Front Street in the same condition it is today, 60 years later. The text associated with the photo reflects the same desire that has gone unfilled for the past 60 years: “A second park greatly needed should be established at the western extremity of Atlantic Avenue on the Amelia River frontage. As shown in Figure 4 and 7 a beautified functional park and marina to attract many intra-coastal waterway travellers now passing by would be an asset. Once stopped, the traveller may be induced to remain a while to learn more of Fernandina Beach and what it has to offer. This beautified river front spot would also become a mecca for home folks.”

The redevelopment of the Amelia River waterfront is this community’s mythical unicorn. Forty years after the 1961 plan (and likely referenced in other interim documents), the 2005 Community Redevelopment Plan repeated the desire to develop the waterfront into an attractive downtown amenity.

The 2015 summary of the City Commission’s Visioning Session, with the charge “Just Do It!” emblazoned at the top, listed development of the waterfront as one of the top three priorities. The other two priorities were the re-opening of Alachua Street and the implementation of a railroad “quiet zone.”

Later in 2015, the brochure, which announced the search for the next City Manager, announced several challenges. “Fernandina Beach’s challenges are not unique but nonetheless daunting. First and foremost, a divide in terms of goals and expectations exists between the City’s progressive and conservative residents. The latter are concerned about change – they see the growth in tourism and wonder what the benefit to them is. The former want to preserve and build on Fernandina Beach’s heritage and culture and bring new life to the City.”

The second challenge re-emphasized the desire for the waterfront: “The second challenge is a manifestation of the first and that is finishing the City’s waterfront. It has been discussed for 20 years and there is general agreement that it needs to be done.”

That document is now more than seven years old, yet painfully representative of the apparent permanence of those challenges. In my tenure since responding to that brochure, every City Commission has indicated as a top priority the desire to develop the waterfront as a park. And every Commission has retreated from that goal.

Upon review, several other goals espoused in those older documents have been achieved or are within immediate reach. Recently, City staff has worked diligently with several riverfront property owners to collaborate for a successful project. Whether that effort gathers sufficient support from the property owners has yet to be determined.

With a new City Commission to be seated in December, I again anticipate that the riverfront redevelopment will be a priority. Will the next Commission be the one to “just do it?”

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DAVE LOTT(@dave-l)
11 months ago

A frank and sad assessment of the various commission’s and City staff’s inability to achieve the vision of the community that has been consistently provided over the last 40 years to develop a gathering spot along the riverfront for citizens and visitors and support the city’s downtown business community. The progress of the FL Waterfronts Committee and the City waterfront advisory groups efforts leading to the Commission approving a waterfront park plan came to a grinding halt later in 2012 with a group of “just say no” commissioners forcing the city to cancel a loan that provided the initial funding for many of the projects cited in Dale’s article under the Forward Fernandina program. Unfortunately, the city has never recovered from that lost momentum and has only achieved success in fits and starts on one-off projects (Alachua opening, sidewalks, Front Street property acquisition). With rising interest costs only forecast to go higher in 2023, I believe it is doubtful that we will see any significant progress in the realization of that 2012 vision in the near term. A key element yet to be discussed is what happens to the current Brett’s structure and how will that affect the marina and the overall waterfront park plans. The demolition of the facility while preserving access to the marina docks will be a costly and complex operation.
The City Manager appears determined to increase the commercial space in the park area. While I understand to some degree that rationale in generating additional income to help subsidize the marina’s money losing financials, the citizens clearly have consistently opposed such an expansion. It will be very interesting to see how the “new” commission will deal with the riverfront vision in their next strategic planning session.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_66273)
11 months ago

We eternally haggle. Nothing is ever completed because of the constant haggling. Visons don’t happen magically by themselves and require time and committed effort. Our election’s process is a guarantee that nothing, long term will occur – as we haggle on and rearrange the deck chairs.

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
11 months ago

I would hope that we are at the tipping point to embrace a clear plan to develop the waterfront as a public asset for all locals and visitors. It seems that much of the problem may lie in the fact that the Port of Fernandina has a commercial agenda that often overwhelms the city’s attempts to create a free public space that will improve our quality of life as a maritime community

Al MacDougall
Al MacDougall (@guest_66282)
11 months ago

I am an advocate of working with the Amelia River–not fighting it.
And that means working with waterfront owners to “beautify” the
shoreline north of the marina, and creating a more park-like landscape
surrounding the marina–probably means reducing parking somewhat,
not all, as patrons need access to the marina docks. The “condemned”
restaurant/bar should become part of marina operations when the lease
is renewed–which has the potential of finally having a marina/park facility
that can survive without taxpayer subsidy.

John Goshco
John Goshco (@guest_66290)
11 months ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

Interesting idea, but if the “profits” (lease revenues) from the new restaurant/bar contribute to the marina fund, then it’s only fair that the construction of the new concrete pier should be funded by the marina and not the general fund. Either way, if there’s ever a negative cash flow, the taxpayers, as usual, will make up the difference.

Jason Collins
Jason Collins(@jc18holes)
11 months ago

The problem is and will continue to be how to pay for it? The County wants to raise taxes to pay teachers more. The City already charges about 5 mils or $1000 per property owner more than the County. Seems to me that the best path forward is a partnership with the City and a developer which I believe has already been proposed and shot down multiple times with multiple suitors and multiple Commissions. Valid question: Is there any fiscally sound path forward without private $$$$ or another tax rate increase.

Bill Fold
Bill Fold(@bill-fold)
11 months ago
Reply to  Jason Collins

Jason, I don’t see one.
I see the biggest problem being a paper mill on both ends of the waterfront that folks want to “beautify”. Not to mention a rail yard spanning the entire length of the proposed beautiful waterfront. Poor planning many years ago got Fernandina in this mess. No amount of taxpayer money can fix it as envisioned.

DAVE LOTT(@dave-l)
11 months ago
Reply to  Bill Fold

Bill, I think you over dramatize a bit. While there are multiple rail tracks, especially south of Ash Street, there is also a street (Front Street) between those tracks and the park area. I don’t know of any effort to “beautify” the mills. They have been there quite a long time and there is private land between the park area and the mills. You are correct in that the location of the marina was a disaster from the start and the only way to minimize the need for constant dredging is to relocate the docks to the north side as was called for in the Applied Technologies & Management plan in 2011. The city’s acquisition of the 101 N. Front Street property and its riparian rights was a necessary step in the implementation of that plan but now the City appears to be willing to give up that asset. And so it goes.

Bill Fold
Bill Fold(@bill-fold)
10 months ago
Reply to  DAVE LOTT

Dave,I agree with your assessment of my over dramatization but the one thing you’ll have to agree with me on is this: The railroad ain’t going anywhere, and neither are the paper mills. So it makes for a rather complex problem, because beautifying the paper mills is out of the question and we all need the rails and we need the paper mills as well for the revenue. We don’t need the flooding. But it’s not in the railroad’s interest nor the paper mill’s to help solve the problem for the city of Fernandina. If it is I haven’t seen any evidence they are willing to financially help out. Correct me if I’m wrong.