Adaptive Apalachicola Looks to Reinvent Itself – Again

 Adaptive Apalachicola Looks to Reinvent Itself – AgainBy Jason Dehart

Living and breathing with the ebb and flow of tide and wind, Apalachicola is seeking to re-create itself – once again.

Cotton, lumber, seafood – even World War II – helped drive the local economy in the past. And each time one industry left, another took its place.

“This is one of the few places that continues to reinvent itself,” said Frank Cook, a city commissioner whose family came to Apalachicola in the 1830s to buy and sell cotton. “Most small towns, when the industry goes away they’re much less of a town.”

But not Apalachicola. It has something most other coastal Florida towns don’t – a famous waterway that is historically, environmentally and economically important. In a sense, the Apalachicola River keeps the town from dying.

“We’ve been blessed because the river is the catalyst for the changes,” Cook said. “All of them have coalesced around the river and what it’s brought us.”

Apalachicola may look laid-back today, but that wasn’t always the case. From 1829 to the Civil War, cotton drove the economy of the town. In its heyday it was the third-largest shipping port on the Gulf coast, behind New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. Steamboats loaded with cotton puffed their way downriver to the port. The noisy waterfront was packed with cotton warehouses and lined with broad streets to accommodate the chore of loading and off-loading. From the warehouses the cotton bales were put on smaller, shallow-draft sailing vessels and taken to larger ships lying offshore.

Then the railroad came, and that ended the boom times for Apalachicola. Cotton could be shipped straight to ports on the East coast, ending the need for a sea port.

“It skipped the Gulf altogether,” Cook said.

By the late 1870s, Apalachicola was rising back to prominence – this time as a lumber town. The noise and chatter of cotton loaders was replaced by the buzzing of sawmills. Rafts of cypress logs came down the river, and men such as James N. Coombs made a fortune. Later, sponging came to Apalachicola, but it was seafood – oysters and shrimp – that gave the town its modern reputation. Around the turn of the 20th century, the voices on the docks and shops were Italian and Greek.

Through it all, people never stopped making a living on the water.

Now it’s time for the town to prevent the river from dying. There’s too much at stake.

“(Apalachicola Bay) functions because of the river,” said Dan Tonsmeire, Apalachicola Riverkeeper. “Without it, productivity would be nothing. The productivity of the bay is the economic driver of Franklin County and this community. It’s a driver for the whole ecosystem.”

Apalachicola Bay produces 90 percent of Florida’s oysters and 10 percent of the nationwide supply. But there are too many abandoned seafood houses on Water Street these days. Only a handful of functioning dealers are left to tend to business. That worries men such as Leon Bloodworth, chairman of the city’s planning and zoning board. Not a fishermen himself, Bloodworth has nonetheless heard some dire predictions from people in the business. Despite that, he has reason for hope.

“I think as long as we keep that water coming down the river and keep the system pure, the local shrimpers, oystermen and crabbers can stay in existence forever,” Bloodworth said. “And a lot of people come here for that. They come for our fresh seafood. The seafood industry and the tourist industry really are entering an interdependent relationship.”

So there is a transition of sorts happening in Apalachicola. The town has high hopes of becoming more of a tourist destination  – but it’s still going to hang onto the seafood industry as long as possible.

Can the two co-exist?

“Sure,” Bloodworth said. “We’re not going to be pure seafood or tourism. City leaders look at it realizing that part of the economy depends on the tourist trade.”

“There are not many places where we can have a truly cultural experience,” Tonsmeire said. “The tie is the seafood industry. You have a bond there unlike any other regions.”

“In my opinion, we have to have both seafood and tourism,” said Stan Norred, owner of Papa Joe’s Oyster Bar & Grill.

“Seafood is why tourists come here,” he said. “We use local seafood at the restaurant. We try not to use imports. We get our oysters from behind St. Vincent Island. They’re consistently the best there is.”

Norred is confident he will survive today’s economic worries. The local eatery has been around for seven years – it survived the economic downturn of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; it survived a red tide outbreak.

“We’ve doubled our business in the last three years,” Norred said. “Actually, we’ve grown this past summer, even with the high gas prices and the economy. We were scared that it’d fall back, but it actually got better.”

Character Counts

The city is intent on making Apalachicola tourist-friendly. That’s why it’s spending $38 million on a facelift of the streets, sidewalks, piers, docks and parks. A big goal is the creation of a “riverwalk” along the historic waterfront.

But more can be done, Bloodworth said, to keep tourists flowing through town. Personally, he would like to see 30 to 40 more upscale shops.

“We know we need to grow a little bit,” he said. “We need to have more nice places to stay, more shops, maybe a spa. There are a lot of things we need, but we just want to attract people here to know our ecology and educate them as to its importance.”

Any new development, however, won’t turn the town into another Key West or any of the residential “fishing village communities” being planned by developers such as the St. Joe Company.

“What St. Joe is trying to build is what we are,” Cook, the city commissioner, said. “If we become like everyone else, we couldn’t compete.”

“We don’t want to change the look of Apalachicola as far as the character is concerned,” Bloodworth said. “We’re trying to continue to protect the history and heritage of the town, but if you’re transitioning into a tourist-based economy, you still have to add amenities for the tourists, but keep all the original character.”