Fernandina City Government Should Open Arms To Entrepreneurial Investors

The makeover of the Old Dinghy Club building on the Fernandina Beach waterfront rivals the work of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. The final product, The Salty Pelican Bar & Grill, is something that is good and appealing for downtown Fernandina Beach. Entrepreneurs Al Waldis and T.J. Pelletier invested private money into a dream endeavor that has success written all over it. Fernandina Beach needs more projects like this.

Salty Pelican Bar & Grill, Fernandina Beach at Downtown Riverfront
Salty Pelican Bar & Grill, Fernandina Beach

EDITOR’S NOTE: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace column.

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The makeover of the Old Dinghy Club building on the Fernandina Beach waterfront rivals the work of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. It would even make facelift queen Joan Rivers envious.

The final product, The Salty Pelican Bar & Grill, is something that is good and appealing for downtown Fernandina Beach. When private capital is infused into a project — rather than public funds — it provides a spark, a taste of economic vitality for a town.

Public funds could have been used to revitalize this fabled, but dilapidated building. However, this would mean taxpayers are providing the funds as public officials often waste them. Instead, entrepreneurs Al Waldis and T.J. Pelletier invested private money into a dream endeavor that has success written all over it.

The building’s location, tucked along the railroad tracks, is pivotal to the downtown waterfront. Not only does the restaurant offer a spectacular view of the Intracoastal Waterway to its patrons, it also dresses up the postcard appearance of the city from the river.

In place of a weathered building, you have a trendy restaurant with a second-floor deck, 14 big-screen televisions, two spacious bars — and a panoramic view that takes away your breath but replaces it with gasps of joy (or maybe a signature broiled oyster). Its sensational debut has even earned 1,200 “likes” on Facebook.

Fernandina Beach needs more projects like this. The downtown district, like many others, has been set back by the severe recession and a weakened business climate. There are more empty storefronts and offices along Centre Street and the side streets than most residents can recall.

It has been justification for city officials to push for a major “Forward Fernandina” capital project that will cost millions of dollars. Public officials feel they must initiate investment into downtown to invigorate the business and economic climate — but private funding is always better.

Private funds do not have to be paid back. They do not burden the city with debts that must be repaid by taxpayers in later years. Imagine if the city had undertaken improvements at the Old Dinghy Club; inevitably it would be inferior to what private investors like Waldis and Pelletier have done, and would have left the city with big bill.

Another example of a timely private infusion is at the Amelia Island Plantation. Omni Hotels & Resorts (read their latest blog about project, see photos) is pumping $90 million into improving the Plantation’s amenities. It has created jobs and an economic enthusiasm among Plantation residents and others. It is an enthusiasm that the private sector is ready to invest again.

Nassau County government officials could have done something like what the Omni has done. It would have meant borrowing funds and putting the public sector into an awkward position of being the contractor for this milestone project. And it would not have worked nearly as well.

Government can encourage private investment, however. It can reduce burdensome impact fees and building fees. Encourage and embrace outside investment — like the county is doing with new residential/commercial projects in Yulee along State Highway A1A (such as one of the largest commercial projects in the Southeast through Rayonier’s real estate arm, Terra Pointe). See related News-Leader article “Yulee Growth On The Way.”

Historic Pub, Palace Saloon on Centre Street, Fernandina Beach
Historic Pub, Palace Saloon on Centre Street

In historic downtown Fernandina Beach, other restaurants and shops and businesses have located in old buildings. So Salty Pelican’s foray onto the scene is not new, but it comes at a pivotal time. And a time of need.

Entrepreneurial investors like George Sheffield and Don Shaw have also helped the local economy by investing in downtown and elsewhere in the city. Shaw has renovated two empty bank buildings along Centre Street and then filled them with restaurants, shops and offices.

Sheffield has acquired the Amelia River Golf Course as well as the Hammerhead Beach Bar and The Surf (and previously the The Palace Saloon and the Bailey House). In his effective style, Sheffield has reinforced and revitalized these businesses, returning them to their heydays.

Waldis and Pelletier have done something similar, only on a smaller scale. But it is a critical investment and addition to a tired downtown waterfront. Hopefully it will start of a pattern of outside investment into this vital location.

Steve Nicklas
Steve Nicklas

City officials thwarted the Lane Development project on the waterfront several years ago. They should open their arms to new ventures — that are funded by private money. And officials should focus their attention on running the city, not redeveloping it themselves.

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