FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business

Raising St. Augustine's Historical Awareness

St. Augustine
Made from coquina, the City Gate and Cubo Line served as the main entrance to the city of St. Augustine for hundreds of years.
[Photo: Glenn Hastings/St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau]

In 2007, when Jamestown, Va., held a yearlong, much-ballyhooed “America’s 400th anniversary” celebration, Florida historians were a bit miffed.

“St. Augustine is the place where America began,” says Michael Gannon, professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida. “By the time Jamestown was founded, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.”

A Spaniard, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, established St. Augustine in 1565, making it the first permanent European settlement in America. His expedition included 500 soldiers, 200 sailors and 100 farmers and craftsmen, along with women and children. By the time the first successful English colony was formed in Jamestown 42 years later,

“It shouldn’t fall upon this little city of 13,000 people to have all the responsibility for maintaining them and interpreting them for the American public — the state of Florida needs a presence here."
Amy Barry— William R. Adams, St. Augustine’s Director of the Department of Heritage Tourism

St. Augustine’s founders had built a city that included a fort, a church, a school, a hospital, a public market and 120 shops and homes. Gannon points out that the Spanish celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Florida “56 years before the Pilgrims of Plimoth Plantation.”

“The English and the Spanish were enemies for centuries, and the English wrote them out of their textbooks,” says William R. Adams, a historian who directs St. Augustine’s Department of Heritage Tourism. “We Americans speak English, and we inherited that tradition.”

That tradition is beginning to crack, in part thanks to Florida’s diversity. As just one example, the Spain Florida Foundation 500, a group of Spanish companies and business executives based in Miami, has begun to invest in St. Augustine’s Spanish heritage, helping preserve the 1812 Spanish Constitution Monument in the city’s Plaza de la Constitución.

Over the next few years, an ambitious effort among the state, the city St. Johns County, the National Park Service, Flagler College and the University of Florida aims to make St. Augustine’s story as well-known nationally as it is in Florida. In addition to its age, St. Augustine stands out from Jamestown and Plymouth because the latter are reconstructions. St. Augustine has been continuously occupied; its residents live and work around the original Spanish colonial structures, 34 of which are owned by the state of Florida. In 2007, Florida lawmakers transferred the structures’ management and operations from the city to UF, which they also asked to create a strategic plan in partnership with the city.

After two years’ work among archaeologists, historians, tourism leaders and other stakeholders, UF earlier this year submitted its St. Augustine Historic Area Strategic Plan to the Legislature. Recommendations include a new interpretive center across from the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument that would link the military life of the fort and the civilian life of the Spanish Quarter; restoration work on the 34 structures; public infrastructure upgrades, including pedestrian walks at car-clogged A1A; visitor information kiosks and interpretive signs; and a new educational strategy based on “layers of history,” weaving religion, maritime, Native American, minority, military, Gilded Age and other themes into a visitor experience now often dominated by the faux Fountain of Youth and ghost tours.

The idea is to create “world-class heritage tourism” in St. Augustine akin to successful efforts in places such as Jamestown and Gettysburg. Of course, it carries a price tag: $36 million, with only about $5 million from the National Park Service.

Historic preservation officials insist such an investment would pay off. An economic impact study of Jamestown’s 400th anniversary showed the commemoration generated nearly 21,000 jobs, $1.2 billion in sales for businesses and $28 million in state and local tax revenue.

The goal is to complete the plan before 2015, when the city celebrates the 450th anniversary of the first European settlement — not just the first in Florida, but in America.