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Downtown Development Anchors Palatka Revitalization

On a November night in 1884, residents of Palatka, Florida, witnessed what The Palatka Herald called “the most eventful occasion in the history of Palatka and perhaps the most destructive that will ever visit it again.”

A fire broke out and destroyed the city's entire business district.

A year later, three brick buildings went up in Palatka’s downtown to help bring the city back to life. Those buildings and another built in 1916, now branded Riverfront Square, are at the center of the city's recent efforts to revive downtown life.

“It used to be the gathering place and everything happened here," said Corky Diamond, owner of Riverfront Development Group LLC, which now owns the buildings. "So, what we’re doing is just revitalizing it to recreate that.”

The city of Palatka is changing its grant programs and encouraging people to invest in its downtown through various incentives.

The city sold the Riverfront Square property at a reduced price, and the development company received $27,000 plus workers to assist in the building's cleanup,  said Jonathan Griffith, project manager and grants administrator for the city of Palatka.

Griffith said the buildings are the single most recognizable symbol of Palatka's downtown but have been vacant for over 20 years.

“Anybody in the community and anybody familiar with our community and our efforts to redevelop sees them as failed efforts,” Griffith said. “So, if we can revitalize these buildings with the assistance of Mr. Diamond, we can then shift the momentum, at least the public perception, in the direction of support for redevelopment.”

On Feb. 3, crews scraped stucco from the exterior walls, exposing the original brick. Diamond said remodeling should be complete by the end of this year or early 2016.

The first floor of the buildings will hold nine commercial, retail and restaurant spaces. Plans call for eight residential units on the second floor and a 3,000-square-foot penthouse on the third floor, Diamond said.

Restoration of these historic buildings will cost about $3 million, Griffith said.

Funding came from multiple sources, including a 1-cent sales tax set aside for capital improvements, state grants, private investments and money designated from property taxes.

All of the subcontractors, most of the suppliers and all 15 of the construction workers hired on the Riverfront Square project are locals, Diamond said.

“There’s a sense of community with our labor force,” he said.

Charles Rudd, manager of Palatka Main Street Inc., said the new residential and commercial spaces will build a local economy and help downtown become a place where people stay all hours of the day.

Residential space is an important part of a sustainable revitalization, and Palatka currently has very little, Rudd said.

“And then the retail shops attract more people,” Rudd said. “So, it creates this energy where downtown now becomes a destination for specialty shopping and for dining, and it’s exponential.”

Rudd said his job is to help that energy thrive by what he calls “programming the streets” through special events like monthly food truck rallies, festivals and car shows.

“We just keep reinvigorating the town with visitors and with locals,” Rudd said. “Even local people have to be encouraged to come back downtown.”

Riverfront Square is one of several projects the city of Palatka has underway to revive downtown, Griffith said.

A new Hampton Inn is expected to open across the street from Riverfront Square this summer and the St. Johns River Center will open by June, Diamond said.

“We’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket,” Griffith said.

But, Riverfront Square is still the centerpiece of their redevelopment plan, Griffith said.

“We see it as a catalyst," he said. "It took awhile to get going, but we’re finally gaining some traction.”

Christina is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.