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?”