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City Council Challenges 2018 and Beyond
Most residents recognize the city has always had a storm water management issue. With heavy rains and king tides, residences and businesses in low lying areas have flooded for years. With Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, we found ourselves even more vulnerable to any type of tropical storm.
We are not alone. Cities along the coast in Florida and Georgia are all experiencing a new level of rising water and inadequate drainage systems. We know what needs to be done but it is a very expensive solution (estimated at $7 million in 2008 dollars). Funding the solution is a challenge that cannot be met with old methodology or more workers. We need a storm water enterprise fund and we need all citizens and businesses to accept the reality of what it will cost each and every one of us.
The city has retained the group that just completed the Brunswick/Glynn County Storm Water Enterprise Fund analysis to provide the same type of analysis and suggested fee structure for St. Marys. Success will depend on citizens from all neighborhoods joining the public effort to identify how the Fund will operate and how and where the money will be used. There is simply no way that our current tax base can finance correcting this age old and ever increasing problem.
Zoning Ordinance Update
The proposed zoning ordinance has created a real division among our residents and businesses. Many welcome the changes and many are very unhappy with the proposals. It is controversial and cannot and will not be adopted or rejected without considerable in depth review by the Council.
Like all Council members, there are elements I like and those I do not. I am not yet convinced that we can effectively deal with land use issues without considering the risks of additional impervious versus permeable surfaces. I am not yet comfortable with the rationale for recommended setbacks or multifamily development in the historical district. And I need better examples of some of the growth ratio success.
There are a lot of questions, but like every other controversial issue, the Council will work through this with the input and suggestions of citizens. It will not be an easy or quick process.
Downtown Waterfront Improvement
I still have sad visions of our beautiful Waterfront destruction the days and weeks after Hurricane Irma. While I am proud of how quickly the city moved to coordinate efforts with multiple federal and state agencies to get those 47 damaged and destroyed boats out of the river and off the streets and clean up the foam and debris, I am as frustrated as many citizens about the length of time it is taking for the reconstruction.
Replacing the boat ramp, replacing the Park Service dock, and replacing or repairing the private owner spaces all require waiting for FEMA and insurance funds. And it isn’t just about funding. Engineering, designs, and permitting to comply with federal and state laws and regulations all contribute to an unwelcome delay. We have finally received the required boat ramp permit and removal of debris has already begun. Reconstruction of the boat ramp will begin this year and is slated to be completed early in 2019.
City Public Works Services
An unusually rainy late spring and summer and limited staff work crews have resulted in questions about the lack of city maintenance in many neighborhoods. The concerns are real. There is no question that we are beginning to see the real impact of our necessary staff budget cuts back in 2008. We are not up to full speed yet and our tax base still relies on residential homeowners. We are going to have to be more creative in finding a way to address this issue. It is not going to happen overnight but the issue is not being ignored. There has to be a better way to address how we fund and manage routine maintenance programs like contracting grass and landscape maintenance while we continue to address long term needs. I am committed to making sure this issue remains on the agenda until we resolve it.
Accurate communications continues to be a challenge for the city. While we have a very good weekly newspaper, an informational website, several social media outlets, town hall meetings and other venues to exchange information and ideas, we still suffer from more misinformation and misconceptions than is useful or productive.
As a Council, we have to do a better job of explaining the many city initiatives. St. Marys is the only government entity in Camden County that both tapes its Council and Town Hall meetings and live streams them. It is our attempt to not only be transparent but to engage citizens. Yet, we need to find new ways to promote positive dialogue among citizens in all neighborhoods. We know that city staff must improve the effectiveness of the website. Even with that, it is still a challenge to minimize misconceptions and create an atmosphere where differing opinions are exchanged in an open and accepting environment.
The Gateway Project
I am an optimist. I always take a positive approach to any issue. As I have said many times, I believe the right development of the waterfront Gateway property can be, and will be, a stimulus for additional appropriate growth downtown. While there are those who continue to disagree with the city’s decision to purchase these properties, I continue to believe it was the right thing to do. It enabled the city to protect the walkway around the property and Gateway pier for public use so that our citizens, no matter where they live, can come down and enjoy the sunrise over the marshes and watch otters playing in the river. If the property was privately owned, that would not be possible.
Public access to the Gateway Boat Dock is equally important. As a reminder, after Hurricane Irma destroyed all the other downtown docks, the Gateway Dock remained intact. Only because the city owned it were we able to make the necessary modifications to allow Lang’s Ferry Service to use that dock and continue its business of transporting people to Cumberland Island. That allowed St. Marys to retain that vital tourist service instead of perhaps Fernandina. And we know how important Cumberland visitor traffic is to many local businesses.
Yes, our first venture with a private public partnership did not succeed. But we learned a lot from that experience and in our second effort we have created a more professional and well researched approach. With the anticipated Wharf project at the Joint Development Authority Marine Center development on the former mill site, there is a real opportunity for us to link these developments in a planned way to bring marine related economic growth to St. Marys without changing the things we love about our historic downtown.
Just as I believed strongly that the creation of the Waterfront Park would enhance our downtown, I believe that the right Gateway project will do the same. As a city, we have to move forward. How we move forward is the key but if we want the vitality and the economic stability everyone tells me they want, we have to take some risks. More importantly, we have to have vision and a well designed plan to achieve that vision. I appreciate those who disagree but those citizens on the very representative Gateway Committee believe this strategy will be a boon to the city. We know we have been working on it for eight years but it is so important to do it right.
Even if this latest initiative does not bring the desired product, this property is crucial to the future of St. Marys downtown vitality and economic stability. It is far better to wait or the right Gateway development that will be a catalyst than to sell this one of a kind property. Waterfront property remains a sought-after (and increasingly scarce) commodity.
The city is not in the real estate speculation business and nor should it be. This is a unique property on our limited waterfront in St. Marys that, if properly developed, can be of significant benefit to residents and visitors while improving our tax base. Downtown businesses say they need more “foot traffic” to generate reasonable profits. Residents tell us they want more shopping and dining options downtown. The way to achieve both is to create a catalyst to draw more people downtown on a regular basis, not just for Festivals or special events.
I, and the Gateway Committee, believe that our efforts are not speculation, but a way to accomplish that goal. The right development can boost our economic stability, encourage private development of empty storefronts, and bring a downtown energy everyone says they want. I do not want us to be like Fernandina or St. Simons. I want us to still be charming St. Marys but with an enhanced vibrancy and a stronger economic base. I see the Gateway property as the ideal and only location on our waterfront to provide that much needed catalyst.