May 4, 2016

Palatka's change of plans

Cynthia Barnett | 8/15/2012
Palatka’s redevelopment efforts will focus on the St. Johns River.

Located between Gainesville and Jacksonville, Palatka has one of the most beautifully sited downtowns in the state, snug in a wide, pristine bend of the St. Johns River. From the 1880s through the 1920s, the area was a commercial hub and destination with Florida settlers, winter tourists and workers debarking from steamboats to fill hundreds of hotel rooms, shops and restaurants.

By the 21st century, however, downtown was quiet and empty, with many of its historic buildings dilapidated. City leaders tried to jump on the revitalization bandwagon and hoped a downtown convention center would attract out-of-towners again into local hotels and shops. But the bandwagon kept breaking down. Redevelopment plans for city-owned property, including the so-called 100 Block of historic buildings and nearby riverfront, first fizzled in 2007. The city’s original contractor, Elite Hospitality of Daytona Beach, backed out. Last year, a second developer, Georgia-based CDP, terminated agreements, citing an inability to finance its ambitious convention center/hotel project.

Now, city officials have decided downtown efforts should turn toward Palatka’s riverine roots and away from the convention strategy. Already, the area is a top bass-fishing destination, and the annual blue crab and azalea festivals draw thousands.

The city just completed a $1.1- million riverfront revitalization and streetscaping. It has announced a riverfront environmental education center in partnership with Georgia-Pacific. Next up: A water taxi service with 65-foot-long vessels retrofitted to resemble the historical paddle wheel boats that once plied the St. Johns, with trips to and from various points of interest. And it is seeking a private partner for downtown redevelopment — but without the convention center and hotel. Two local consortiums have bid on the new project.

It may not have been time for a convention center, says Palatka Mayor Vernon Myers, “but for the river, the time is always right.”

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