Last week, The Washington Post published a story about Palatka under a headline that read in part: “This dying city is determined to save itself.”
It’s never a good thing to be called a dying city in a national publication.
But, the Post reported, that’s what an expert hired by the Florida League of Cities in 2013 found based strictly on statistics — more deaths than births, more people moving out than in.
The Post cited other more recent evidence:
The city’s only Kmart went out of business in the spring. J.C. Penny closed earlier this month. The once thriving Palatka Mall sits mostly empty.
“Opioid abuse is rampant,” the Post said, “and 1 in 10 residents continue to live in public housing.
“The school system ranks among Florida’s worst. And the city’s pipes are so old that the water sometimes comes out the color of rust.”
Such discouraging facts can’t be ignored, but Palatka does have a special building block for a stronger economy — the St. Johns River.
A new generation of city leaders has begun to recognize that.
“Officials here,” the Post reported, “are striving to turn the riverfront, a resource that is unique to this city, into a future hub for tourism and a draw for retirees.”
I’ve learned over the years in this job that the people in Palatka and Putnam County don’t appreciate a columnist from Jacksonville telling them what to do.
So I won’t do that. I’ll just offer some friendly advice from someone who cares deeply about the St. Johns River.
Tourism is the right track to take.
As we are learning in Jacksonville, there is a strong, emerging market for eco-tourism. People are drawn to the natural beauty of unspoiled Florida.
The St. Johns River, the Timucuan preserve and our beaches are Jacksonville’s selling points for visitors who want more than theme parks and golf courses.
The river can be the selling point for Palatka as well, but so much more could be done in eco-tourism if new leaders would quit listening to those of old who place the wishes of bass anglers above the economy of the city and the county.
I’m going to say this once again even though it will anger those who cling to a past that has faded away.
Breach the Rodman dam and free the Ocklawaha River.
Begin restoring the 9,200 acres of floodplain and forest that are inundated by the Rodman pool.
Bring back to full life the more than 20 springs that are covered up by the pool’s often stagnant water.
Make the Ocklawaha again what it once was — the most beautiful river in Florida — and return 185 million gallons of freshwater a day to the St. Johns that is lost because of the pool and is needed to restore the river’s health.
If Palatka is serious about a strong tourism industry to help its economy rebound, the St. Johns River and a restored Ocklawaha are the way to get there.
There’s evidence to support that when the pool is drawn down every few years to rid it of choking vegetation and people flock to see the wildlife and what could be.
Supporters of keeping the dam intact argue that bass fishing is a key driver for the area’s economy.
How is that working out for you? Palatka, Putnam County’s largest city, has been labeled a dying city
The Post story began by describing a group of people boarding a riverboat, the Pride of Palatka, for a look at the possibilities for eco-tourism.
“The travelers hoped the old river might be the key to a prosperous future for a rural community that, like many others across the United States, has been largely left behind by the modern economy,” the Post said.
“They envision bed-and-breakfasts along the water, condominiums rising for retirees who might prize the view and tourists flocking to experience a rare pocket of undisturbed, natural Florida.”
The ingredients are there for leaders who want to chart a new direction.
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