This is a story on economic development in Putnam County as it tries to emerge from a global pandemic. It’s a story about a chain restaurant bringing dining options to residents. And it’s a story about trees.
However, there is more to this story. It’s really a story about working together. That’s refreshing, especially these days when our world at times seems upside down.
If you’ve driven along the commercial stretch of State Road 19 in Palatka, you’ve likely noticed the Captain D’s seafood restaurant under construction. Company officials expect the restaurant to open in late July or early August.
Now, Putnam has some wonderful locally-owned restaurants. The same is true for fast-food chains here. Still, more dining options are always welcome. It’s also another avenue to add jobs and keep more dollars here as the county tries to boost economic growth and see residents spend locally.
And then there are the trees, one in particular. There is a splendid live oak on the restaurant’s property company officials estimate to be more than 100 years old. John Hendrix, an environmental consultant who lives in west Putnam County, was involved with the project and said the tree is likely more than 200 years old, maybe even 250.
Initial construction plans called for the removal of the tree and others on the site to make room for the new Captain D’s. This is where the working together part comes in.
Dean Mimms, Palatka’s interim planning director, knew the city had a tree ordinance. When reviewing the survey of the property, the large tree on the site obviously stood out.
“It wasn’t just a 30-inch oak tree, it was an old live oak tree that we knew was at least 100 years old,” Mimms said. “We had John Hendrix to identify that tree and other trees on the property.
“It’s kind of a fun story because it led not only to the preservation of that tree, but others on the site.”
It wasn’t so much fun for Captain D’s officials – at least initially.
Larry Jones, vice president of construction for Captain D’s, admits he wasn’t receptive early to the idea of saving the tree, redoing the site plan and adding to construction costs.
“It did add some considerable expense,” Jones said. “At first, I looked at it just as a paper exercise. We were already behind schedule and I won’t tell you it was the right thing to do in the beginning.”
But Jones left his Nashville office to visit Palatka and check the location for himself. That trip convinced him an alternative plan was needed.
“I did a site visit,” Jones said. “I saw the tree, met Dean and walked along the river in the community. It made sense that saving the tree was the right thing to do.
“The franchise owners were accepting of the additional costs to save the tree and redo the planning. Dean was very helpful as we thought about how it would work. Everyone worked together and we came out with a great outcome. I think we ended up with a win-win.”
Without going into a lot of architectural detail, construction of the approach to the restaurant’s drive-thru had to be shifted left to create a traffic pattern looping around the tree. To accommodate that plan, the building was shifted south.
The plan was revised to save the big old tree, along with some others on the site. A retention pond was added. More drainage and landscaping plans were developed.
“It did encroach on the drive-thru and it took some extra planning,” Jones said. “Fortunately, the lot was big enough for all that to be done.
“My wife came down and saw the tree and said we could not have taken that away. It was the right thing to do. Wanda (Davis) and Toks (Achebe), the franchise owners, are excited to be opening their business in the community.”
Hendrix said the partnership between the city and the company was a good story about how the plan was sensitive to trees on the site.
“It was nice to be asked to assist on a project where the developers were really interested in trying to design a project that would fit within the larger tree and they were able to save three or four other good-sized trees as well,” Hendrix said. “The entire landscaping plan and design was very considerate of the aesthetic qualities of Palatka.”
Mimms echoed that sentiment as the new restaurant nears completion, while preserving a part of old Florida here many revere.
“It’s a welcome new development for us,” Mimms said. “And it’s refreshing to meet people who are trying to do the right thing – the value of natural resources and just the respect of nature in saving this old live oak tree.”
Like Jones, Achebe said the suggested construction change was an initial setback. He said Mimms was instrumental in guiding recommendations on viable layouts, something Achebe said is a masterpiece plan and an example of working together.
“I must confess, the changes we made almost killed the project because of the exorbitant amount it added to the overall cost of the project,” Achebe said. “The oak tree on the property is a beauty, not just for the aesthetics, but also for the civic responsibility we all have to the preservation of the environment. These sentiments informed all the decisions we made, from the architectural plan to the actual construction.”
The result? “A beautiful Captain D’s restaurant situated ideally and majestically next to an oak tree that predates you and I,” Achebe said.
So, in the end, the story is about more than economic development and a new restaurant. It’s about compromise and partnership.
It’s a success story.
Wayne Smith is the editor of the Palatka Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.