Jacksonville City Council President Lori Boyer grew up in rural South Dakota where going down to the water meant fishing in small lakes. Boyer’s hometown since 1978 has been about as different from her childhood home as two kinds of topography can be.
Jacksonville boasts the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the rolling rhythms of the St. Johns River, the steady flow of the Intracoastal Waterway, the rippling creeks of the Timucuan Preserve. About 156 square miles of Duval County are covered by water.
In some ways, it’s a vast resource that’s hiding in plain sight. Online sites that report on eco-tourism spots often use descriptions like “overlooked” and “best-kept secret” to describe scenic getaways that even long-time city residents don’t know about.
As City Council president, Boyer wants to change that.
“These are wonderful resources, and I think we’re not doing a good job communicating to the outside world that they exist — nor to our own residents,” Boyer said. “But if you communicate them to the outside world, the residents are going to find out about them, once you make them visible.”
At Boyer’s direction, the Jacksonville Waterways Commission is taking a deep dive into how the city can foster more activity at the water’s edge and on the water. Dubbed “water activation,” the aim is to bolster the city’s appeal to residents and tourists alike. The commission’s report is slated for April.
The findings will arrive at about the same time the city completes a draft report for a separate study called the Duval County Maritime Management Plan. It will give a detailed look at what’s needed to enhance access to the water.
City Councilman Jim Love, who serves on the Jacksonville Waterways Commission, sponsored the legislation for the maritime management plan.
“We are not using the river like many other cities are using their rivers,” Love said. “We’re not tapping into water resources like we could, and the whole idea is to use what we have. We’re the Bold New City and the River City at the same time. We’ve got to think big.”
The list of ideas being floated is a long one: Add kayak launches, mark paddling trails, build more boat ramps, extend downtown’s riverwalk, offer boat tours along the St. Johns River and in the Timucuan Preserve, increase competitive rowing on the Arlington River, host more fishing tournaments, redevelop Mayport with a fishing village theme, and build a new “waterway park and welcome center” on Johnston Island in the Atlantic Beach area of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Boyer is pushing to build more water taxi stops in the downtown area, saying the river is key to downtown development.
“The role I see downtown playing is that it’s an aesthetic experience where you dine and stroll along the water and maybe you see a light show or hear music,” Boyer said in an interview at her council office, where stacks of maps and reports are signs of the water activation studies.
“Downtown is the place where there are river taxis that are frequently providing access back and forth across the river,” she said. “There are walkways that are engaging on both sides of the river. It becomes not unlike Louisville and other cities where tourists go down to the waterfront and dine.
“As soon as you start to get out from the core of downtown,” Boyer continued, “you have a whole array of other opportunities. Those may be sailing opportunities, they may be paddleboarding and kayaking opportunities. It’s kind of the sky’s the limit.”
The city has a big canvas to work with. About 20 percent of Duval County is set aside as federal, state and locally owned conservation land, including almost 23,000 acres of local conservation land. Much of that is in water-borne areas of the Timucuan Preserve.
“We have this wonderful wilderness area that we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars on acquiring all this property,” Boyer said. “It’s relatively unknown and not accessed by a lot of people.”
Indeed, the Timucuan Preserve doesn’t have the same profile as other nature-based attractions like The Everglades. The online site FloridaRambler.com, which highlights “authentic Florida” getaways, has a post about the Timucuan Preserve headlined “The Florida National Park You’ve Never Heard Of.”
Visit Florida’s guide to the state’s “top canoeing and kayaking trails” doesn’t list any in Jacksonville because the city does not have any state-designated paddling trails.
Boyer said the city needs to do a better job telling its story.
“We really can offer something for for everyone, and a lot of it, to me, has to do with packaging and marketing,” she said.
To flesh out that big picture, the studies on water access will prioritize projects over multiple years with estimated costs. Paying for them will be a challenge.
The only dedicated funding source for water access projects comes through the Florida Inland Navigation District, which comprises 12 counties along the east cost of Florida. FIND levies a property tax at a 0.032 millage rate, which equates to 3.2 cents of taxes per $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a $150,000 home with a homestead exemption pays $3.20 per year in FIND taxes.
As a member county in FIND, Duval County applies annually for water-related grants. From 1986 to 2016, the county won almost $18 million in grants to help pay the tab for around $38 million of projects. That doesn’t go far in a city with so much water running through it.
“We almost have an abundance of opportunities here,” said Quinton White, executive director of Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute. “We’ve got so much that is spread out so far. That’s going to be one of our challenges.”
White, who is part of a team working on the Duval County Maritime Management Plan, said it’s clear people want to use the river.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean marinas, as much as it means ways for the average citizen to access the river,” he said.
A survey done for the maritime plan asked respondents to pick their three highest priorities. Almost 50 percent of respondents cited more boat ramps, while 40 percent put more kayak launches in their top three needs. More waterfront parks were cited by 31 percent, followed by 27 percent wanting more docks and 24 percent asking for expansion of riverwalks and boardwalks.
Love is among those who want to see extension of downtown’s riverwalk, saying his dream is to be able to someday walk along the St. Johns River from Memorial Park in Riverside to Metropolitan Park in the sports complex.
“If you go to Vancouver, Canada, you can walk two to three miles along their bay and it’s magnificent with thousands of people living in boats and high-rises along the water,” Love said. “The average person doesn’t have a boat or a canoe, but they like walking along the river. It’s soothing. We have some of that, but we don’t have enough.”
Downtown appears on track to get more of that access in the coming years.
When the state Department of Transportation widens the Fuller Warren Bridge for vehicle traffic, the work also will build a new 12-foot wide span across the river solely for walkers and bicyclists, giving them a panoramic view of the river.
The city is rebuilding a portion of Liberty Street where it collapsed into the river. As part of that project, the city will tear out the parking deck built on piers behind the old county courthouse, creating a kind of cove in that stretch as people go along the riverwalk.
Continuing east, the Downtown Investment Authority will soon pick a master developer for The Shipyards and Metropolitan Park, with an eye toward extending the riverwalk in that direction.
On the other side of the St. Johns River, the planned development called The District will lengthen the Southbank Riverwalk. Boyer has plotted a route for that walkway to loop back through San Marco so there is tighter connection between the neighborhood and the river.
Beyond the maps, Boyer has experienced the water first-hand in new ways while doing the study.
She went to Blackrock Beach on Big Talbot Island (a state park described by the web site theoutbound.com as “one of Jacksonville, Florida’s best-kept secrets”) to walk through the beached driftwood that causes some to call it The Boneyard. “I”m sitting there thinking, ‘How did I not know about this?’” she said.
A kayak excursion found her wearing a headlamp like a miner entering a cave when she paddled up McCoy’s Creek where it flows under a parking deck on piers at the Times-Union’s riverfront property.
“It was pretty cool. I made my son go with me because I thought there would be rats or something,” she said with a laugh. “It wasn’t that at all. It’s beautiful. The creek itself, you’re saying, ‘Okay, you can make something of this.’”
David Bauerlein: (904) 359-4581