Economic Vibrancy of Downtown Fernandina Beach

A recent News-Leader article addressed the recent closings of O’Kane’s Irish Pub and other restaurants and stores on Fernandina’s Centre Street. Some respondents countered by pointing to a rosy shade of the picture — that several new restaurants and stores had opened, or remodeled.

Overlooking Centre Street from O'Kane's Irish Pub Fernandina Beach
Overlooking Centre Street from O’Kane’s Irish Pub, Fernandina Beach

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

_STEVE’S MARKETPLACE_

It begins with a thread — that winds and weaves into a fabric of conversation.

Such is life on Facebook’s Amelia Island Fernandina Beach Network page. 

This particular thread was made of a sensitive topic — the economic vibrancy of downtown Fernandina Beach. It was created as a follow-up to my News-Leader article on this subject from last week, to sample the thoughts of the 3,000 members of the site.

Last week’s article had addressed the recent closings of O’Kane’s Irish Pub and other restaurants and stores on Centre Street. Some respondents countered by pointing to a rosy shade of the picture — that several new restaurants and stores had opened, or remodeled. And that everything is perfect with this economic picture.

Others — like me — think otherwise. It is overly optimistic to put a positive slant on three restaurants closing since August and on seven empty storefronts. All the while, local tourism reached an all-time high this year. 

I had cited rising rents and obtrusive city policies and out-of-town competition as the main culprits. However, let’s not forget that rents are rising because landlords face escalating tax rates (compliments of city officials) and insurance costs.

And while these conditions negatively impact local businesses, the tax burden on the others gets heavier each time one closes. Residents are protected by state laws regarding property taxes, but businesses not so much.

“We’re in a death spiral,” says Phil Griffin, who owns a real estate office here specializing in commercial properties. “The city is chasing fewer and fewer people for more and more money.” New development has frequently sidestepped downtown Fernandina Beach because of the costs from stringent city codes regarding permitting, density, etc. Businesses can opt to move outside of the city, or to Yulee. 

And if you look outside of downtown — along other city business corridors like South Eighth Street or Sadler Road — the picture looks more bleak. There are too many empty stores and buildings to count while driving through there (yes, I tried it).

One Facebook participant commented: “Driving down blighted Eighth Street, you’d think you were in a third world country!”

Another referred to the impressive remodeling of Slider’s Restaurant — and the “snags” from city officials that slowed down the project. “It’s a miracle they ever reopened,” she said regarding the two-year project.

As for the historic district and Centre Street, another participant said there is “just too much drama.”
Another person interjected his thoughts on tourism. “There are a lot more closures than perhaps folks realize,” said Rob Long. “And probably more coming before the spring when tourists come back. 

“Yes, we had more tourists this year, however it’s my contention that they spent less per capita.”

If Griffin’s contention is accurate, it means that city officials will continue to raise tax rates if there are fewer businesses. A landlord must still pay taxes even if his building is empty, but it creates financial pressure. 

To complicate matters, the downtown post office is hanging on by a thread. Just as many of the Nassau County Courthouse functions relocated to Yulee, the closing of the post office would mean fewer people coming downtown.

While tourists truly enjoy the downtown corridor, you wonder if most of them are just milling about — or actually buying. Are they doing a lot of drinking and eating and shopping? We certainly hope so. Meanwhile, some downtown businesses are doing remarkably well. They are likely having record years. Even so, the competition is increasing for the tourists’ and locals’ dollars. Just look on State Highway A1A in Yulee.

A popular Panera Bread restaurant is opening. There are already a Chile’s and an Applebee’s here, but these are just an appetizer of the chain restaurants soon to open. The big-box clothing stores are also springing up.

Steve Nicklas
Steve Nicklas
So what does this mean for the privately owned stores and restaurants and bars of downtown? It cannot be favorable, to say the least. And you wonder if many people, including tourists here, are simply hanging on by a thread financially.

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