Susan Hardee Steger
“Does this town care?” asked 41 year old Jennifer Niles Massachusetts resident who sustained injuries after being “thrown out” of her wheelchair. As Niles returned from the waterfront and crossed to Centre and North 2nd Streets, her wheelchair became lodged between the tracks and deteriorating railroad ties. Just minutes before a train’s arrival, four men came to her rescue. Although grateful to those who helped, Niles is wondering how a city could allow unsafe railroad tracks in a major tourist area to remain in disrepair.
When the accident occured, Niles was returning from the Centre Street docks on her way to Salty Pelican Bar & Grill, a popular eatery in downtown Fernandina Beach. After the fall, Niles’ reaction was panic followed by concern for her well being having recently undergone spinal fusion surgery in her lower back. Instead of an evening at Salty Pelican she returned to the hotel where she nursed a sore back and skinned knee.
Returning to the scene of the accident, Niles spoke of other areas of concern as she maneuvers through the historic downtown. There are inclines exceeding the mandated American with Disability Act standard making travel downtown more challenging. (A lawsuit filed by two individuals in 1998, forced the City of Fernandina Beach and Nassau County to examine and improve accessibility.) When asked for her opinion on how Fernandina rated on handicap accessibility Niles’ reply is , “Over all, Fernandina is good.”
Still shaken from her fall, Niles discusses the access to Salty Pelican Bar and & Grill, a place that Niles enjoys. The path to the restaurant from Centre Street is an uneven mix of asphalt, concrete, and gravel. Add to the challenge of arriving by wheelchair are cars parked in the pathway; some cars parked close to the tracks causing difficulty for even a young capable Niles.
Prior to the opening of Salty Pelican in August of 2012, the City required the owners Al Waldis and T.J. Pelletier to build what has become know as the “Sidewalk to no where.” (Click for previous F O article.) According to Michael Mullin attorney for Salty Pelican, “My client relied upon the City’s staff’s representations that access would be provided from Centre Street to their property, and that, obviously, has not happened.” Mullin’s letter was written December 20, 2012, and has given the City 90 days to “take every action necessary to accomplish the access.” (For previous story click here.)
It was thirteen years ago when Niles broke her back in a mountain bike accident. Prior to the accident she was involved in real estate. Niles now works part time. Her trip to Fernandina Beach was a reward to herself after a trying year of back surgery and recovery. It was a friend who years ago introduced Niles to Fernandina Beach, and she immediately liked what she saw. Niles eats in local restaurants, frequents retail shops, and has met many locals during her planned two month stay.
Niles appears bright, upbeat, and enthusiastic about life. She seeks opportunities to explore the natural beauty of the island, recognizing there are limitations. Now she is on a mission to call attention in an appropriate professional manner, to access issues in Fernandina Beach that need attention.
March 7, 2013 6:33 p.m.