St. Marks Seeks a Rebirth
Seeking a Rebirth Hard hit by hurricanes and the economy, St. Marks works to revitalize itself By Lee Gordon Originally published in the June/July 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
In the 1950s, St. Marks was one of the key social and recreational points in Wakulla County, with capacious boating and fishing opportunities. Many knew it as a small town with a laid-back atmosphere. But as economic and business conditions changed, so did the vibrant nature of the community. What was once a small fishing village turned into a town plagued with industrial contamination and decay.
In the early 1990s, many business owners and residents left town, leaving St. Marks without much of an industrial infrastructure. Nearly 20 years later, many of those industrial sites still remain vacant, a tangible sign of the lack of employment opportunities in the area. Making matters worse, Hurricane Dennis came storming through in 2005, destroying what little progress the city had made. Posey’s Oyster Bar, a staple of the community, closed down and was condemned.
“It was a bit of a shock that Posey’s had to close down because of Dennis; it flooded it out,” said Charles Shields, a St. Marks city commissioner and former mayor. “After it was inspected, they condemned it. That was a blow because of the activity that (the restaurant had) created on weekends and during the week.”
So after years of watching the community fall apart, the city commission came together to update St. Marks’ land-development code. What came from those meetings was the initiation of Plan St. Marks —according to a report done by Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc., a vision for the town to “regain its past vibrancy and to capitalize on its rich history and vast natural beauty.” Many projects described in the plan are already complete; others, including a boardwalk, are scheduled to begin in the spring and summer of this year. The hope is that the plan will launch an economic revival.
The boardwalk and a “rails to trails” project are funded by the state of Florida; a brand-new sidewalk, meanwhile, was built using federal stimulus money. All of the other projects will be funded using grants.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of St. Marks in 2006 was 315 residents. Four years later, that number has barely budged. As of February 2010, there were 323 residents — not enough people to generate the amount of money needed to revitalize the old fishing town.
“Our tax base is just not (large enough) that our community can get out and raise the funds for what these grants can do for us,” Shields said.
Currently St. Marks has numerous infrastructure shortfalls: no public library; unpaved roads; limited lodging facilities. All serve to constrain redevelopment. However, there is hope for the future.
“We are looking for a town center down the riverwalk with shops and the boardwalk and the bike trail,” said St. Marks City Manager Zoe Mansfield. “We would like to have some shops downtown and new restaurants, and see a lot of people come in.”
City officials came up with five initiatives that they felt needed to be addressed in order to bring St. Marks back to life. Those initiatives concern such issues as improving connectivity within the town, adding a riverwalk, making enhancements to the St. Marks Trail, and making improvements to city parks and boat ramps. Based on the Kimley-Horn report, these are seen as the key components in the recovery of St. Marks.
Oct. 19, 2009, was a historic day for St. Marks. “We got a sidewalk, our very first sidewalk,” Mansfield said of the ribbon-cutting ceremony held that day. The new sidewalk runs along Port Leon Drive, directly in front of City Hall and the post office.
The sidewalk and a crosswalk were funded with $50,000 in federal stimulus money. The project cost close to $38,000, and the remainder of the money was returned to the federal government.
Some call it the “sidewalk to nowhere,” but St. Marks officials call it the beginning of greater things to come.
“When it was advertised that we could apply for it, we applied for it,” Mansfield said. “I really was skeptical about getting it, but we did. We are overwhelmed with it. It didn’t cost the city anything.”
The plan is to expand the sidewalk to the river, but the city will need a permit and additional stimulus funds to make that a reality. Part of Plan St. Marks is to improve the connectivity of the town, beginning with the sidewalk and culminating in a ferry or water taxi between the city and the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. There are also talks about building a bridge over the river to connect the city to the refuge.
Waterfronts Florida Community
Another major part of Plan St. Marks was for the city to be designated as a Waterfronts Florida Community. The city successfully applied for the designation in 2007.
The Waterfronts Florida Partnership was created by the Florida Coastal Management Program in 1997 to address the physical and economic decline of traditional working waterfront areas. The St. Marks Waterfronts Committee consists of 15 members who serve as the eyes and ears of the revitalization project. Their main concerns are addressing issues connected with public access to the waterfront area, hazard mitigation, environmental and cultural resource protection, and the enhancement of the viable traditional economy, or economic restructuring.
“The whole program is to make access to the waterfront,” Commissioner Shields said. “What they want to get out of this is … for not only the community but the surrounding communities to have access to state waters. The community itself is involved and has helped to try and promote St. Marks. We’ve done a lot of advertising, and Waterfronts has been a big part of it.”
According to MyFlorida.com, the state’s website, once an area receives the designation, the community receives intensive technical assistance and limited financial aid, resulting in a new or refined, community-designed plan to guide the revitalization of the community’s designated waterfront area. The Waterfronts Florida program is managed by the Florida Department of Community Affairs and is funded in part by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Coastal Management Program, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
An estimated 250,000 people use the St. Marks Trail each year. But over time, the trail has sustained a substantial amount of wear and tear. So the Rails to Trails Conservancy will get to work, fixing up the trail, making it more user-friendly. The Florida Office of Greenways and Trails has funded the project — Phase 1 will cost
$1.86 million while Phase 2 will cost right around $2 million. The money will come from a combination of capital outlay funds and legislative appropriations. The first phase of the project got under way in early March and will go from St. Marks to the Wakulla-Leon County line. The second phase will start in 2011 and will go from the Leon County line north to Capital Circle.
“Those plans are 90 percent complete,” said Ken Bryan, Florida director of the Rails to Trails Conservancy. “This is mainly a widening and resurfacing (project). It was originally an 8-foot-wide surface but was built before (the Florida Department of Transportation) came out with the green book. The minimum is 10 feet, and right now it’s substandard. Now it’ll bring it into state and national standards and will become
12 feet wide.”
The green book, according to the FDOT website, is a manual that establishes uniform minimum standards and criteria for the design, construction, and maintenance of all public streets and highways, including pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
Since the 1950s, Florida has been first, second or third every year in the number of pedestrian and bicycle fatalities involving automobiles.
“It’s a dangerous place to be a pedestrian,” Bryan said. “This trail provides an opportunity to get out with the family and not compete with the automobile.”
City Park Improvements
The city of St. Marks has expanded and improved the Wakulla River City Park. The enhancements and addition of nature trails were deemed necessary in marketing St. Marks as a tourist destination by promoting fishing, eco-tourism and wildlife-based businesses.
“We put in a canoe-kayak ramp,” Mansfield said. “In 2005 when Dennis came in, it really flooded St. Marks and it took (the entire park) out, so they redid that. It looks really good.”
Through grants, St. Marks received $200,000 for the St. Marks River Park and another $400,000 grant for the Wakulla River City Park. The town also has applied for funding for extra playground equipment for children and workout equipment for adults.
In addition, St. Marks received a $1.3 million grant to fix the city’s sewage plant, a step seen as necessary to attract the kind of residential and commercial expansion envisioned in Plan St. Marks. However, although the plant has now been fixed, the national economy continues to struggle.
“We refurbished the old (sewage plant) and added to it,” Mansfield said. “We thought we would get a development in here and add capacity, but when the economy folded, they pulled out … but we have the new plant.”
On Oct. 9, 2008, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new two-lane St. Marks boat ramp, paid for with a $445,000 grant from the commission’s Florida Boating Improvement Program.
Another major project the city has taken on is the clean up of its refinery. The 50-year-old plant stopped processing in 1987 and operated as a terminal until 1997. In its later years, it became contaminated and, according to St. Marks Mayor Phil Cantner, “rundown and a bit of a dirty operation.” DEP stepped in and spent
$22 million trying to clean out the plant, trucking off tons of contaminated soil. But the money ran out before the job was complete.
Using two $200,000 grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the city will now assess the refinery, including taking down some of the tanks to see what lies under them.
Moving forward, officials hope to refurbish as much of the refinery as possible, then turn it into a solar plant. If that can happen, local officials believe jobs will be created, blight will be removed, and St. Marks will be one step closer to regaining its past glory.
“It would be a cash stream for the city of St. Marks, which we desperately need,” said Cantner, “We run the town off of property taxes and we have a couple of businesses but we barely scrape by. If we think our future is more tourism based, we need to clean it up and this will be a good chance to do so.”
COST OF RENEWAL
According to the August 2008 draft CRA Redevelopment Plan, the total cost of Plan St. Marks and the redevelopment project comes to $12.3 million, with $9.8 million being used for the redevelopment area. Here’s a look at the breakdown:
Riverwalk District $6,742,553
Purdom District $101,032
Residential District $2,263,381
Live-Work District $2,985,112
Villages of St. Marks $75,000
Grand Total $12,336,243
Redevelopment Area $9,897,862