Improving downtown Palatka, one step at a time

  • Workers prepare the old JCPenney building in downtown Palatka for a new coat of paint.
    Workers prepare the old JCPenney building in downtown Palatka for a new coat of paint.

Charlie Douglas and Joe Pickens have at least a couple things in common. First, both of them have served as the chairman of the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, with Douglas currently filling that role.
Second, both men are advocates for championing everything Putnam County. They are not alone in that endeavor.

Pickens, who is president of St. Johns River State College, is part of the group that purchased the former JCPenney building in downtown Palatka last year. It is currently home to the Bingo Palace.

Douglas is also a part of that group – St. Johns Development LLC – and he purchased the brick building across the street from the Bingo Palace. The striking brick structure stretches along Second Street from Reid Street to St. Johns Avenue. Douglas plans to move his law firm into the building within the next few months.

Both buildings hold the promise of a bright future for revitalizing downtown Palatka and sparking additional growth throughout Putnam County. One can envision shops, offices and restaurants drawing visitors into downtown just footsteps from the St. Johns River.

Revitalizing the heart of the county’s largest city would most likely spur other businesses and investors to follow suit, potentially meaning more jobs. Growth. A better economy. A better place.

In talking with Douglas and Pickens this week about the two buildings, both men expressed their view of continuing to push Palatka forward.

It’s refreshing to hear as the county, state and national economy look to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. A visible sign of the first steps toward that recovery started this week with the JCPenney building getting cleaned up and prepped for a fresh coat of paint.

Coming across the bridge from East Palatka, that structure is one of the first things you see. It was made even more visible with the huge Palatka banner placed on the building in February. It will likely go back up when painting is complete.

Small steps, one by one, Douglas and Pickens see something great ahead.

“The pandemic has changed the economy locally and nationally, but there are a lot of bright spots that we see here,” Douglas said. “One is the unemployment rate is trending downward. We have a diverse economy here that can better withstand some of these storms.

“I think downtown Palatka is a catalyst to help rebuild the economy in a post-COVID environment. I believe in the vibrancy of downtown Palatka, and a lot of others do as well.”

Of course, promoting Palatka and Putnam County is part of Douglas’ duties as chamber chairman. He went on to talk about other activity going on downtown, including Tate Miller’s effort to renovate Hotel James, Andrea Conover’s work toward opening Azalea City Brewing Co. and several more projects.

“Overall, there’s a lot of great momentum happening in downtown Palatka and it’s exciting to see,” Douglas said. “The chamber continues to promote our Opportunity Zones and we’re seeking investors who might be interested in this location.

“It’s not a difficult sell because we have so many assets in this community, with the St. Johns River being right at the top of the list, as we figure out how to leverage our assets as we begin promoting this area nationally.”

Pickens is optimistic about the future, too. While additional development of the JCPenney building was put on hold because of the pandemic, splashing a new coat of paint on the exterior is a sign of progress.

“This doesn’t generate any revenue, but it’s the right thing to do,” Pickens said of the face-lift. “Our long-term goal is to develop it and for it to be a significant part of downtown.

“We see purchases of other properties downtown and Charlie’s purchase is huge. There are other investments in properties downtown that will be known in the near future. Palatka continues to take the steps needed to emerge on the back end of the pandemic.”

Pickens said the goal of the investment group is to ensure the pandemic doesn’t result in stagnation of the revitalization process. That’s why the new look for the JCPenney building carries with it more than just a different color scheme.

“I hope we’re leading by example,” Pickens said. “If we want others around us to do the same type of things, you do it yourself first.

“Given the decades of suffering downtown has endured with properties being bought and then sat on, the message we want to send is to let our conduct be an example, letting our actions speak louder than words.”

Pickens is confident a number of things will happen to boost downtown Palatka forward, hopefully sooner rather than later.

“The foundations have to be laid before any of those things happen,” Pickens said.

Small steps, one by one.


Wayne Smith is the editor of the Palatka Daily News. His email is