October 21, 2014

Development

Playing Catch-Up

Two beach communities set their sights on the prosperity that's largely passed them by.

Bob Snell | 10/1/2004
Though located at opposite ends of a 30-mile stretch of barrier beachfront, Mayport and Vilano Beach have much in common -- a rich history, colorful locals and some hard economic realities.

While most northeast Florida coastal communities have enjoyed remarkable growth and prosperity over the past decade, Mayport and Vilano Beach haven't kept pace.

Mayport has struggled to overcome its reputation as a rough-and-tumble fishing village/Navy town -- known more for its trailer parks and strip clubs than its picturesque location at the mouth of the St. Johns River.

In Vilano Beach, the problem is more concrete. In 1995, the towering Usina Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway rerouted St. Augustine-bound traffic away from the community's once-bustling downtown.

Longtime residents, however, insist the fortunes of these coastal bookends are slowly changing. A combination of local activism, state-financed "vision" projects and infrastructure improvements has made the towns more attractive to business investment.

Change has been more dramatic in Vilano Beach, where the North Shores Improvement Association has worked with state and county planners to find grants for several creative amenities.

The old Vilano Bridge has been turned into a popular fishing pier. A wooden boardwalk meanders through the Intracoastal marsh, and a graceful pavilion will soon mark the entrance to the town's vehicle-friendly beach. Next up are road and stormwater improvements, which will be financed with a $5.6-million county bond issue.

"We want to create a town center anchored by a supermarket and pharmacy that serves the local population," says Vivian Browning, the improvement association's past president. "After that, we hope to have the kinds of shops and cafes that will cater to tourists."

Vilano Beach's residential character is changing without much government intervention. Million-dollar estates are replacing shacks, and a string of condos will soon line the oceanfront.

Mayport's demographics make revitalization more of a challenge. The town's large, transient military population brings residents with lower incomes and little attachment to the community.

Still, a series of road and sewer projects has the old fishing village poised for development. Like Vilano Beach to the south, Mayport leaders envision a main street filled with boutiques and restaurants that will attract tourists and, ultimately, improve the town's reputation.

Tags: Dining & Travel, Northeast, Housing/Construction

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