St. Augustine Record – USA TODAY NETWORK
The email address at the bottom of this bi-weekly column is included to receive reader feedback. Over the past seven years or so, we’ve typically received four to five responses to most columns, sometimes six to seven, but the July 31st column, asking if St. Augustine will/can remain a viable community or become a community a full-fledged 13-square-mile resort, elicited 14 responses — all involving quality-of-life issues.
Here are some excerpts:
• “You have St. George Street (I call it St. Gouge Street) which is as disgusting a commercial place as it gets. Lincolnville is losing its historic significance as our northern brethren buy homes and remodel them and/or turn them into B&B nightmares.
• “I wish you had broadened the scope of your article to include rampant growth and the problems it is causing across the county. It’s not just a City of St. Augustine problem, it’s a St. Johns County problem.
• “St Augustine –– ultimately –– is a rinky-dink tourist trap… Tried to get out of my neat little white bread enclave yesterday on US 1. Get some fresh air. Get out of the house for a few minutes. There was a wall of bumper-to-bumper traffic — good people from Alabama and Georgia going somewhere — so I just gave up, turned around, and headed back to my lovely stucco retreat. pink. Had a grilled cheese sandwich.
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• “Referring to your article on the growth of St. Augustine, I remember when it was a GREAT little tourist town. All the old buildings and history made it what it was. Now we hardly go to town. You can’t get into a restaurant, you can’t find a place to park. More hotels and condos are not what this town needs. They take away the old charm it had. I understand people want to make money, but how greedy can you be? This type of growth must stop. It’s not such a BIG place anymore.
• “I have been vacationing in St. Augustine since 2007 and finally moved to the area in 2020. I have already noticed great changes in and around St. Augustine and feel that the community is getting lost. I didn’t move to the neighborhood to change it, but rather because I like its small town vibe. Your city planners will eventually kick you out of the area, because the more you market the place, the more you’ll raise prices. I looked at how they did it in my old small town and I see a similar pattern here.
These comments are representative of reader comments, but the most striking remarks came from Paul Williamson, retired public affairs director for the city of St. Augustine, who included attachments with his response. Paul, who currently lives inland but follows what’s happening here on the coast, gave me the OK to select parts of a letter he sent to the Municipal Commission when he retired.
Rather than speak from the pulpit in his final committee meeting, Williamson opted to submit a letter explaining what he would have said had he gone to the pulpit. His February 13, 2019 farewell message to the commissioners included an acknowledgment that “Downtown St. Augustine is failing to meet the needs of residents. It’s not his riding.
He wrote about the challenge of defining livability, saying, “No one would include increased driving time over short distances, skyrocketing housing costs, or the threat to distinctive neighborhood characteristics from rentals. vacation. Livability might be one of those hard things to define, but you know it when you see it, or you miss it when you don’t.
Williamson highlighted St. Augustine’s evolution “from a small North Florida town with a few tourist seasons to a year-round version of Disney’s CityWalk with historical landmarks,” and asked the commissioners to be “proactive in meeting the needs of residents and less passive in the face of decisions whose consequences, whether intended or not, will be detrimental to a residential way of life. It is not anti-business to wonder if another restaurant or hotel is necessary as much as a pharmacy or a grocery store.
He concluded by suggesting to the city commissioners, “Perhaps your choices are either to resign yourself to the path chosen long ago by the city, or to continue to cling to a city that once was.”
Paul Williamson’s insight and institutional knowledge will be missed, but he clearly left a challenge for future city (and county) commissions to balance livability needs against tourism impacts and remain a vibrant community. We can only hope they find a way to meet this challenge — and soon.
Steve Cottrell is a former small-town mayor, president of a chamber of commerce and editor of a weekly newspaper. Contact him at [email protected]