A New Vision

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Putnam County welcomes a new decade filled with hope

  • A worker with Florida Power & Light installs solar panels at the Horizon Solar Facility in Hawthorne.
    A worker with Florida Power & Light installs solar panels at the Horizon Solar Facility in Hawthorne.
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The first decade of the 21st Century was cruel to Putnam County when the 2008 recession hit. Businesses closed, people moved away and the county became one of the state’s poorest.

However, a positive ending to the century’s second decade has area leaders feeling upbeat as 2020 and a new decade arrives.

“I’m very optimistic with some of the things we see changing in Putnam County,” County Administrator Terry Suggs said.

“We’ve got Revitalize Historic Palatka and other things going on at the riverfront. We’ve just updated our comprehensive plan that will help us in our residential growth and business plans for industry in economic development. I see a lot of pros for Putnam County.”

Some of those pros include Georgia-Pacific and Seminole Electric investing half a billion dollars in renovations at their plants in Putnam County.

In addition, Comarco Products is spending $6.5 million renovating the spec building it purchased in Putnam County Business and Aviation Park. The company, which makes precooked eggplant dinners for the restaurant industry, is moving its headquarters to Palatka from New Jersey.

The plant is expected to open in mid-April and will initially employ an estimated 50 to 75 workers. 

Suggs hopes more new businesses will soon follow.

“Our property values in Putnam County put us in a good position to attract new businesses,” Suggs said. “We want good, smart and sustainable growth. Putnam County is on the cusp to do great things in the next 10 years.”

Others, including Palatka Mayor Terrill Hill, agree.

“For me, I think 2020 is the ultimate sign of a new vision for us,” Hill said. “We’ve got two major projects called Vision 20 – as in 2020, which is our Booker Park and John Henry ‘Pop’ Lloyd Sports Complex – and also the A. Philip Randolph Intermodal Transportation Hub, which is creating a transportation hub on that 11th Street corridor.

“When you look at what’s going on in this new decade, it’s a decade of change. Hope has been restored in this community, and the gem of the St. Johns River has begun to shine again.”

With the help of Quint Studer’s Vibrant Community Partners, 1 Putnam and other local organizations are directing revitalization efforts in Palatka and Putnam County.

The work in downtown Palatka includes restoration of the historic Hotel James and plans to do the same at the former JCPenney building now housing Bingo Palace.

The city is also in the process of replacing old water lines downtown dating back to the 1800s. The next major phase of work is scheduled to start in early 2020 along St. Johns Avenue.

Other improvements expected downtown next year include the opening of Azalea City Brewing Co. in the former Coca-Cola building.

“I’ve been here going on 10 years, and we’re starting to see some significant things happen, especially in the downtown corridor,” Palatka Public Works Director Jonathan Griffith said. “Looking back, we’ve had a lot of positive developments, and it’s only going to get better starting the next decade.”

Griffith is also involved with Palatka Young Professionals, a group that managed to bring back the Blue Crab Festival in 2019 with resounding success. One focus of the group is retaining the best and brightest   young   professionals in the county.

Keeping that talent is something Studer and Suggs say is a key strategy for Palatka becoming a vibrant community. 

“We’re surrounding ourselves with great talent to lead Putnam County for the next 10 years – local, well-educated people who want to be here,” Suggs said.

Dana Jones, president of the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, also looks ahead with optimism to the start of a new decade.

“With a new decade, I’m an over-the-top optimist,” Jones said. “I believe we’re perfectly poised for great, great things.”

Jones said the new decade will start with two major fishing tournaments in February, including the Bassmaster Elite Series and a Fishing League Worldwide bass tournament.

Last year’s Bassmaster tournament brought an economic impact of $2 million as well as national TV exposure on ESPN.

“Our first lineup for tourism is amazing right out of the gate,” Jones said. “And then, Comarco will bring new jobs and new opportunities at the beginning of the second quarter.”

Tourism, specifically ecotourism, is also expected to continue to grow by leaps and bounds during the upcoming decade. Palatka was designated as a Trail Town in 2019, building on the success of the Bartram Trail in Putnam County.

Sam Carr, director of Putnam Blueways and Trails and president of the Bartram Trail Society of Florida, said ecotourism will continue to drive the county forward as a “destination location.”

“The whole purpose of becoming a Trail Town is to create amenities for people to come here and spend their money,” Carr said. “We want to bring people to town and let them have a positive experience.

“Maybe next time, instead of staying in St. Augustine, they will stay in Palatka.”

County Commissioner Bill Pickens is another official looking forward to seeing what the new decade brings to the area.

“I just think we need to have a good balance of everything,” Pickens said. “We want to make sure we recruit new businesses and keep creating some good jobs so our local talent has a place to come back to and pursue a career.

“As a small business owner, I’m hopeful for our entire county.”

Grand Gables Inn owner Tate Miller is in the process or renovating Hotel James in downtown Palatka. Like Pickens and others, he’s hopeful about what the new decade will bring.

“If we judge it by what’s changed just in the last five years, we all should be optimistic,” Miller said. “Four years ago, a lot of the downtown area was literally boarded up.

“Now, you can count on one hand those places. With the place we’re at and so many people putting forth the effort to rock us forward in a great way, there are a lot of things happening in partnership and cooperation.”