Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Is it a communal vision for Fernandina’s future or a hallucination from the ranks of elitists? Where did the money come from, and is the money “tainted,” as one current commissioner opined recently? How did we get where we are, and more to the point, just where the heck are we on this plan anyway?
Part I of this three-part series will strip away many of the myths and rumors surrounding the genesis and funding of the strategic plan, commonly called Forward Fernandina. Part II will discuss the current status of the plan, discuss possible consequences of abandoning the plan and highlight important lessons for civic and government leaders on introducing major change into the public arena. Part III places the ball in your court.
Forward Fernandina, Part I: What it is and how it all began
Back in 2010 many people – business owners, residents, potential developers, community activists and government leaders – began looking into crafting solutions to long-term problems facing the commercial urban core of Fernandina Beach. Over the years many committees had been formed to study problems relating to improving the economic health of the city, but owing to both a lack of funds and sometimes conflicting political agendas, these plans had either been half-heartedly implemented (like the riverfront Community Redevelopment Agency—CRA) or put on the shelf for future consideration “when the timing is better.”
The community conducted a visioning exercise in the 1990’s and issued a report entitled Vision 2000 to serve as a blueprint for future government and business action. This plan was updated, when it seemed to need a jump-start, by former mayor Bill Leeper (now Nassau County Sheriff) and reissued as Vision 2020. Thousands of public dollars were invested in consultants over the years to translate vision into concrete actions with respect to improving the waterfront. And still nothing happened.
By 2010, the riverfront and Front Street looked as bad as they had before the Vision 2000 report. Businesses were closing on Centre Street. The CRA had been truncated both in size and in life span from its original proposal. Density and height requirements made waterfront development problematic, especially in a slumping real estate market. City owned buildings such as the train depot and the downtown library branch had fallen into serious disrepair. The historic downtown Post Office Building had become an urban eyesore thanks to USPS fiscal problems. And the 8th Street corridor, the entrance to the City, looked more like a decaying industrial corridor than the gateway to a vibrant small town with loads of tourist attractions and quaint shops. What’s more, Centre Street merchants found themselves losing more ground to local shoppers who now had more choices for shopping not only on Sadler Road but also within a few miles in Yulee.
Instead of wringing their hands and blaming the situation on city budget problems, the Fernandina Beach City Commission at that time – Susan Steger, Eric Childers, Jeffrey Bunch, Tim Poynter and Arlene Filkoff – determined to find ways to attack the problems that were threatening the health and survival of the city. The FBCC embarked upon a planning session after considering input from multiple public meetings, advice from a noted urbanist underwritten by the Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation, and reviewing previous reports and plans. The commissioners were in agreement that to avoid constantly increasing taxes on residents to keep government functioning or improve any identified deficiencies they needed to find ways to broaden the tax base and protect the current business environment, including tourism. They also understood that the city needed to overcome the perception that it was not business friendly in order to find ways to bring in new businesses.
Commisssioner Arlene Filkoff, the only member of that commission serving today, outlined the major findings of that commission during a workshop of the FBCC held on February 11, 2013:
- Downtown needs anchor activities, such as the library, to draw people to the area. The Nassau County Courthouse and the Post Office no longer brought the numbers of people downtown when other centers for these activities opened off Centre Street.
- The waterfront is a huge asset and with implementation of existing plans could become another downtown draw.
- The city’s primary projected growth over the next 20-30 years is in the retiree demographic. With more people on fixed incomes, the need to expand the tax base becomes even more critical just to maintain current levels of service.
- The approach to downtown – primarily the 8th Street corridor – needs to be more welcoming.
- Fernandina Beach’s historic downtown is a major attraction to both tourists and local residents.
The FBCC decided that ways to achieve their goals and to build on the city’s assets included:
- Building a riverfront park that could be enjoyed by residents and tourists. This was a priority of the Vision 2000 committee, members of which included Danny Leeper, Beano Roberts, Patricia Thompson, Foy Maloy, David Caples and many others.
- Building and/or improving Front Street infrastructure, including repairing the railroad crossings at Ash and Centre Streets. Note that opening the Alachua Street crossing to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, discussed as early as 2003 when Aaron Bean was mayor, was later added to the plan. Negotiations with CSX on this item had been ongoing since 2009, and it seemed to make sense to do all three crossings at the same time to save money and avoid multiple disruptions. Also added later was the notion of creating a “Quiet Zone” downtown which would include upgraded railroad safety measures and signalization so that trains would not need to blow horns each time they approached an intersection. Such a move, while costly, would help CRA development by providing more peaceful nights for people in hotels and new residential areas.
- Rehabilitating and expanding the downtown library facility. While the libraryfunction is funded by Nassau County, the building is owned and maintained by the City of Fernandina Beach. Because of problems with the existing facility identified in a letter from the county librarian dated July 8, 2010, the urgency of either fixing the problems or finding a new location for the library was apparent. The County and the City came together and decided that each would pledge $600K in a joint effort to address the library’s needs while assuring that the function would remain downtown. The Friends of the Library jumped into the project, guaranteeing another $400K, when it was determined that the “fix” would cost $1.6M.
- Sprucing up Center Street with better signage and repaired or replaced sidewalks and walls.
- Establishing design guidelines for the 8th Street corridor and incentivizing property owners who voluntarily improve their property.
The goals and objectives of the commission’s planning session were given to City Manager Michael Czymbor, who was then charged by the commission to format the commission’s work into a strategic plan that could be realized over a 5-10 year period. This strategic plan drafted by the Fernandina Beach City Commission and converted to a working document with specific actions and costs by city staff became known as Forward Fernandina, or F2.
Once major priorities and projects were identified, the FBCC began discussions on the best way to fund the work. With the economic recession and the downturn in the construction industry, there was a sense that if money were readily available, the city could take advantage of low construction costs and put local people to work on the projects. While the total cost for all the projects identified was approximately $6M, the FBCC decided that since the work would be done over time, an initial investment of less than $2M would be sufficient to complete phase 1, thereby paving the way for increased development in the waterfront CRA that would generate funds to pay for the next phases of the plan.
The Commission considered a variety of means to pay for these improvements. There was not enough money in the capital improvement fund to reprogram those funds, which had been set aside for other physical priorities of the city. While there was consideration of a general obligation bond, that was rejected for several reasons. First of all, general obligation bonds are borrowed for specific purposes and the borrowed money cannot be reprogrammed. Since the city was hoping for grant money to offset some of the initial costs of F2, the local costs of specific projects had a potential to vary significantly from those outlined in the planning documents. If, for example, a waterfront grant came through, money allocated to F2 projects could be moved to other projects on the list, such as Centre Street sidewalks or the 8th Street corridor. Under a bond, such reprogramming would not be possible. Another consideration was equitably spreading the responsibility for paying for the projects to the citizenry at large. In effect, that ruled out raising the millage rate, which only impacts property owners. The Commission settled on increasing the electricity franchise fee. Unlike either a millage increase or a general obligation bond, the franchise fee is paid by all users of electricity and natural gas.
With a low interest rate of 2.43%, borrowing $1.88M to complete the initial phase of work on capital improvements that would boost downtown economic development could be financed with a loan to be paid off by franchise fee increases in the amount of 55-60 cents per $100 of power used.
Fernandina Beach’s official communication channels have never been as effective as the community grapevines and the Centre Street mischief-makers. Add to this the political machinations of various city cliques and the apparent interest of the only local print news outlet in overthrowing the city manager. Before the ink was even dry on Resolution 2011-5, which adopted the Forward Fernandina Strategic Plan, the misinformation about plan elements was making its way around town. Some of the “fictions”, as Commissioner Filkoff called them in her presentation:
- The plan was developed by the city manager;
- The commission paid the engineering firm of Zev Cohen to tell them what to do;
- The plan would make Centre Street one way;
- The city was borrowing $11M;
- The plan elements were designed specifically to benefit certain businesses and/or families;
Plan opponents cultivated a sense of outrage among uninformed voters that somehow, some way their legal right to vote on this plan had been usurped. Overlooked in such tales was the city’s history of borrowing to make improvements in the past, such as purchasing the new police station on Lime Street (more than $1M) and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on beach renourishment without a public referendum. Yet somehow, borrowing $1.8M to make capital improvements that would result in a broader tax base, constituted taxation without representation – at least according to one current commissioner’s campaign literature.
Next installment: Part II: Status report, consequences and lessons learned
Editor’s Note: Suanne Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues impacting our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.
February 13, 2013 7:15 p.m.