Is Change Coming?
As the rest of Amelia Island has developed, the unincorporated community of American Beach has stayed nearly the same. The neighborhood lacks modern sewer and water systems; most roads are unpaved. Only about 20 of the 125 or so property owners live on the island. Others use their homes for vacations. Boxed in by new residential construction, the community is divided over whether to upgrade infrastructure and allow development or to resist change and keep property taxes low.
New property owner Tony Brown, a Jacksonville resident and executive with NationsBank Florida, is among those pushing for new construction, including some commercial activity. But many longtime homeowners, such as Annette Myers, head of the American Beach Property Owners' Association, prefer to preserve the 78-acre neighborhood for single-family homes.
The history of the beach dates to the days of formal segregation when blacks were excluded from most coastal areas. American Beach was established in the mid 1930s by Florida's first black millionaire, insurance magnate Abraham Lincoln Lewis. At its peak, it encompassed 200 acres and served as a vibrant getaway for prominent black families.
In recent years, many homes have fallen into disrepair, and new construction is stymied because houses must use septic tanks and can't be larger than 1,200 square feet. An example of the dramatic chasm between American Beach and its neighbors: Brown bought a 50-by-100-foot oceanfront lot for $89,500 last fall; three 100-by-215-foot beachfront lots in nearby Amelia Island Plantation sold for $1.3 million each.
Real estate speculators and nearby resorts have tried to make plays on American Beach. But developers have found it difficult to put together a large parcel of developable land because so many lots are small and owned by individuals fiercely loyal to the community's ethnic heritage.
Brown, Myers and Nassau County officials have been meeting in an attempt at compromise. Brown has proposed a community redevelopment district that would rely on increases in property taxes to fund infrastructure improvements. Myers, a retired Fernandina Beach high school guidance counselor who moved to American Beach in 1960, worries that some property owners can't manage increases in taxes and other fees associated with development. There has been talk of applying for state grants or community block grants, but it's unlikely the area could meet the low-income requirements. While some residents are low-income, there are also doctors, lawyers and executives. Any plan would need the approval of county officials. "We want to see it developed," says county coordinator Walter Gossett, "and we want to see the current American Beach property owners be the ones to develop it." Pressure from inside and out likely will bring changes within the next few years. Says Gossett: "If they don't do it, eventually someone or some company will."
In the news ...
Baker County - The public hospital authority is building a new $9 million, 25-bed hospital and 68-bed nursing home to replace a 1957 facility. The Ed Fraser Memorial Hospital expects to open early next year.
Baldwin - Tampa-based Ameristeel bought 400 acres at the Baldwin Industrial Park. The company has no immediate plans to develop the property.
Columbia County - A three-year, $20 million renovation of the 1901 courthouse in Lake City is under way. Funded with a one-cent sales tax increase, the project is expected to generate nearly 200 short-term construction jobs.
Lake City's first new bank since 1986, Peoples State Bank, opened this spring. The community bank, started by 14 local businesspeople, plans branches in surrounding counties.
Columbia Lake City Medical Center opened a new $33 million, 75-bed hospital this spring to replace a 40-year-old hospital.
Gainesville - Shands HealthCare sold 10 of its homecare offices to Miami Lakes-based Flagship Healthcare. Earlier this year, losses of $6 million in Shands' homecare division prompted the company to close 16 of 26 Shands HomeCare offices statewide. Shands will continue to offer home healthcare services in the Gainesville area.
Jacksonville - PSS World Medical (Nasdaq-PSSI) subsidiary Diagnostic Imaging Inc. acquired four medical X-ray companies and expects to increase its revenues by $45 million to $750 million this year. Separately, PSS signed an agreement with Siemens A.G. to move Siemens ultrasound equipment through PSS distribution channels. Meanwhile, PSS restructured its long-term care division after Medicare changes lowered revenues, and a Security and Exchange Commission review is prompting the company to revise its financial reports.
Plans for a $175 million expansion to nearly double the capacity of Jacksonville International Airport are to be finalized this summer. Construction may start next year on additions to handle 8 million passengers annually; last year the airport had 4.6 million passengers.
St. Joe Co. (NYSE-JOE) merged its commercial real estate services, including many firms it has purchased in the last year, into a subsidiary, Advantis. Based in Atlanta, Advantis is opening offices throughout the South. Separately, Jacksonville Port Authority picked St. Joe to develop a distribution center south of the airport, but another bidder, Atlanta-based Weeks Corp. is protesting the contract. Weeks has commercial properties at the nearby Jacksonville International Tradeport.
Another sports franchise has been added to the city's line-up. An Xtreme Football League team, indoor, arena-like football, begins play next spring. David Berkman, an Atlanta real estate investor with links to the area and a home on Amelia Island, leads the ownership group, which also owns Jacksonville's minor league hockey team, the Lizard Kings, and an Xtreme football team in Pensacola. Another group owns an Xtreme team in Tallahassee.
Levy County - The state kicked in $550,000 for infrastructure improvements so that Monterey Boats, maker of recreational boats, could expand at Williston Industrial Park. Monterey moved its operations from Archer in Alachua County, where it employed 137, and is adding 56 new jobs.
Ocala - Inmates at the Florida Correctional Institution, a state women's prison, did much of the work in upgrading a Pride Enterprises-run prison textile plant that produces uniform pants for guards. The plant recently underwent $310,000 in renovations and equipment upgrades.
Putnam County - Keith Marine Inc. is expanding its yacht and commercial boat-building facility in Palatka. The manufacturer is adding a 20,000-sq.-ft. building, a dock and a railway. The boat builder expects to employ about 100 by next year, up from
Carolina First Corp. of Greenville, S.C., bought Citizens First National Bank of Crescent City with four Putnam offices and assets of $55 million. Carolina, which is opening a Jacksonville branch, also was negotiating to buy Citrus Bank of Orlando, with assets of $238 million, and giving its Florida holdings the name Citrus Bank.
Starke - Highways bring life to rural towns, as merchants along U.S. 301 learned when a half-mile stretch was closed for five days this year so CSX Transportation could install a new railroad crossing. A Bradford County Chamber of Commerce study documented losses of $805,500 among some 100 shops - business fell off 30% or more at 40 stores - as 150,000 cars and trucks were re-routed.
Suwannee County - The Suwannee County Development Authority purchased 97 acres just east of Live Oak on U.S. 90 for an industrial park. CSX Transportation is constructing a rail line to serve businesses there.
A Holiday Inn Express slated for the Live Oak/U.S. 129 exit off Interstate 10 is part of ongoing growth generated by infrastructure improvements in that part of the county.
While many of his contemporaries are relaxing in the North Carolina mountains, strolling along Maine's coast or touring Europe, John Delaney, Jacksonville's popular mayor, is expected to spend his August vacation ruminating on a possible run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by fellow Republican Connie Mack, who is retiring next year. Money doesn't appear to be an issue. Delaney, 43, is getting encouragement from deep-pocketed supporters. He's also been shown a demographic analysis that suggests a candidate from north Florida can win a statewide election without carrying heavily populated Miami-Dade and Broward counties. One big drawback for Delaney: Lack of statewide name recognition. Another: Unlike state or federal officeholders, if Delaney decides to enter the race, he'll have to resign as mayor, in accordance with a Florida law governing elected officials of municipalities. But there may be a loophole, insiders say. Jacksonville's consolidated government consists of Jacksonville and Duval County. If Delaney is serious about running, look for someone from his camp to mount a legal challenge to the law.