Character Counts

St. Marks and Carrabelle Residents Work to Save Their Heritage

Character CountsSt. Marks and Carrabelle Residents Work to Save Their Heritage

By Stephen Kindland

Residents of two Forgotten Coast towns are setting their sights on economic progress after reeling for years in the wake of Hurricane Dennis, the nation’s gas crunch and gill net regulations that have stymied the shrimping industry.

And yet, townsfolk in Carrabelle and St. Marks are wary of revitalization plans now taking shape, some of which the state is helping to pay for. Both coastal cities have been designated as Waterfronts Florida Partnership Communities through the state Department of Community Affairs’ Waterfronts Florida program. The designation makes the cities eligible for $25,000 matching grants for planning and technical support from the state to help rejuvenate their coastline areas.

While residents of both towns welcome the economic improvement that may result from this program, they have made it clear that whatever might be in store better not change the “fishing village” atmosphere defining both towns, set 45 miles apart on U.S. Highway 98 in Franklin and Wakulla counties.

No one hears that message louder than Carrabelle Waterfronts Partnership Program Manager Tamara Allen. Her nonprofit group, Carrabelle Culture, Arts and Recreation Services – or Carrabelle CARES – is working closely with city officials on proposed waterfront projects.

Allen’s organization mailed out 700 surveys to residents and held public hearings to help determine how, what, when and where improvements will take place within an 8-square-mile area surrounding the 115-year-old town’s coastline. About 100 responses were sent back, and combined with the buzz around town, it’s clear that most residents believe the town’s old way of life already is gone forever.

“They don’t want to see Carrabelle changed into something it’s not,” Allen says.

Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Suzanne Zimmerman, who also is involved in the planning, wholeheartedly agrees.

“What they have left, they’ll fight to preserve,” she says.

Eva Papadopoulos, whose family has owned and operated several local restaurants over the years, also wants something done to replace the town’s nearly extinct shrimp and party boat businesses.

“But I don’t want to see anything like Destin or Panama City,” she says. “We’ve already got condos everywhere, which would be fine if we had people living in them.”

Revitalization plans are being laid out in modest but realistic terms in the two towns. Both plan to increase public access to rivers and bays, and both want to enhance recreational facilities. Officials in Carrabelle hope to add a public boat ramp and install benches along waterfront areas so people can “just sit and enjoy the water,” Allen says.

Pam Portwood, Allen’s counterpart in St. Marks, says the local economy took a major hit in 2005 when Hurricane Dennis knocked Posey’s Oyster Bar – “Home of the Topless Oyster” and St. Marks’ main attraction – out of business.

That’s one reason a Waterfronts Partnership steering committee has been “heavily involved” in efforts to revitalize the town’s commercial area.

“They definitely don’t want to lose the town’s character of a fishing and boating village,” Portwood says. “Random development is generally harmful.”

St. Marks Mayor Charles “Chuck” Shields says the waterfronts partnership will help breathe economic life into the area because it coincides with projects already in the works. He says the city plans to extend the St. Marks Trail bicycle path 3,000 feet to a city park adjacent to old Fort San Marcos de Apalachee and the town’s commercial area. The bike trail itself starts 14 miles away in Tallahassee and ends on Riverside Drive in St. Marks.

Although improvements are mapped out on paper at this point, the plans are not an empty promise.

“To me, this is all real,” Shields says. “Citizens are eager to work and help out.”

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2008, Forgotten Coast Archive