By Bob Allison, 2-13-23
Perhaps you are paying attention to the lively discussion in local media surrounding the future of the City’s waterfront. Some at City Hall would have you believe the expansive mud banks shown above and on the City’s waterfront cannot be filled over to create new land. This is simply not true. With ordinary permits from the Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers providing mitigation for the small patch of marsh grass on the south end, the City owned waterfront can actually come alive with new land and new opportunities.
You might wonder why do I care what the City does with its waterfront? Maybe I should share a little personal history. Back in the eighties when I first stepped before the City Commission, as a well-intentioned but perhaps naïve twenty eight year old, with my plan for building Fernandina Harbor Marina, I fully expected to be received with open arms. At the time more than half of the retail storefronts on Centre Street were actually boarded up with plywood. There was simply not enough commerce downtown for many small local businesses to make ends meet. Down at the west end of the Street there was a steady stream of boats and magnificent yachts on the Intracoastal Waterway passing the City by every single day.
I can remember being on the City’s small fuel dock early one evening with Tommy Purvis who managed the fuel sales. Two gorgeous yachts pulled their bows up to the dock and there were at least six people aboard each of these boats. Tommy waved his arm and said these words “I don’t care where you go but we’ve got no room for you here”. The people on the boats were obviously disappointed. They faced having to suffer through another five hours or more of operating their boats in the dark to get to either Jekyll Island or Jacksonville to find another marina. It was then a light bulb went off. You have all these rich people wanting to get off their boats after nearly a full days travel from either Jacksonville or Jekyll or St. Simons Islands and then you have all these businesses struggling to survive on Centre Street. All that was needed was a bridge between the two and life would be better for everyone. When I stepped before the City Commission for the first time with my idea for Fernandina Harbor Marina, I fully expected the idea to be received with open arms. I was wrong. This is not what happened.
Suddenly and without any warning or expectation, my great sensible idea was being pummeled from all sides. I like former City Commissioner Ron Sapp a lot but he was the first to chop me up into small little pieces. After all I had only recently moved from Jacksonville and was still considered a foreigner. I can still remember Ron’s tough pointed questioning… “Do you really believe the Corps of Engineers would ever permit such a facility?” and “Where do you propose to find the money to build such a thing?” and “Don’t you understand the folks here in Fernandina Beach really don’t want to see the place changed?” Very soon thereafter I was being shot at from multiple directions. There was one angry group of citizens who opposed the marina because it would disrupt the pelicans roosting on the old, broken and dilapidated docks which were numerous along where the marina now sits. There was another group who objected to anything that might inconvenience the shrimp boats and then yet another group who were in love with the gifts of small two ounce plastic cups of orange juice provided by the staff at the previous Florida Welcome Station. This was a post-modern mostly glass tee-pee shaped building which sat where Brett’s is currently located today.
For many months, not one single person came forward to support my great idea. There was just me with a set of plans under my arm surrounded by a small army of angry folks all saying “no”. However I am glad I held out. Here, I can add a caveat and I do so with no intent to boast. I am the only person who has delivered important meaningful improvements to the City owned waterfront in over sixty years. I am proud to have accomplished this without spending a dime of City money. All of the improvements were paid for by others.
This was not easy and it will not be easy to make new important improvements to the City’s property. There will have to be compromise. Hardened opinions will have to soften. Viewpoints will have to shift to recognize the realities of the tough economic circumstance created by the City building yesterday’s marina instead of tomorrow’s. There are those who say “no commercial development on the waterfront” but are they recognizing how severely the marina and its requirement for expensive dredging affects their taxes? Do they fully appreciate that if the marina bulkheads are relocated to create several acres of new land that only a small percentage of this new land can be built upon to generate enough revenue to the City to fully offset the hemorrhage of funds from the marina? There are many types of businesses that are entirely appropriate for being on the waterfront. Obviously, Atlantic Seafood is an excellent example but there are also others. What is easy to overlook is that tastefully designed buildings can complement the City’s current inventory of Victorian turn of the century architecture. If they are properly located on the City’s property, they can provide important visual and sound buffers to neutralize the industrial influence of the railroad, making a new waterfront park a delightful place to visit and enjoy.
I am a business man, a land planner and a real estate investor and I don’t presume for one minute to have all the answers. Watching City Hall waste millions of dollars on the waterfront should be painful for any City taxpayer. It is like witnessing an evolving economic disaster in real time. If you want to personally be helpful in making something positive happen on the waterfront, please voice your opinion. Your ideas might just tip the scales and jump start real progress downtown.
Click to read Mr. Allison’s downloadable, printable PDF COMMON SENSE WATERFRONT PLAN
Previous Bob Allison city marina articles:
Bob Allison, a resident of Fernandina Beach, is the father of the FB City Marina
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal Florida.