Pete Melfi -
As many locals have seen over the years, St. Augustine is a rapidly growing community. St. Johns County has increased in population by more than 100,000 people in just the last decade. Many of those new residents originally came as tourists, fell in love with the charm of a town centered around community events and unique local hot spots, and decided to stay. As St. Augustine grows in popularity, one of the side effects that we all have to deal with is increasing traffic, especially during holidays.
For residents who have lived here through the city's massive growth, the traffic situation is one of the most frustrating issues today, as their once-small town drive has begun to resemble a big city commute. Many have asked the city for help, and officials are trying to adapt to a new reality.
On March 12, the St. Augustine City Commission heard Public Affairs Director Paul Williamson's proposed possible solutions to traffic problems during busy weeks in the city's schedule. Much of the conversation revolved around Bike Week, spring break, and St. Patrick's Day, which all occur within a few weeks of each other, and coincide with a few annual local festivals. The result is hellish traffic conditions for everyone who ventures Downtown, and into the historic district. The problem, Williamson pointed out, in regard to mobility, is that there are times like these throughout the year when the city has no control over the amount of traffic that passes through Downtown. Holiday traffic contributes to massive gridlock. Some residents even stay home to avoid it.
Short of closing our gates to visitors, St. Augustine as a city has little say in how much traffic there is, especially in the downtown area.
So what is the solution if it can't control visitors?
COSA proposals have raised the eyebrows of local event organizers and residents alike, as the city floats the idea of moving, and in some cases canceling, some of its largest festivals in an effort to avoid conflicting with hectic tourism dates. This is causing concern among some that the city is looking to once again accommodate visitors over local interests.
"We can't control Bike Week or spring break traffic. We have to control what we can," said Commissioner Todd Neville at the March 12 meeting. Neville also pointed out that event traffic generated by multi-day events at Francis Field, such as the annual Rhythm & Ribs Festival, attract more than 10,000 people, which translates to roughly 7,000 additional vehicles on downtown roads. While the city has taken steps to ease congestion with programs like park-and-ride shuttle services, Mobility Program Manager Reuben Franklin noted that the current program takes only about 500 of those cars off the road.
Neville believes that rescheduling some of these events by a week or two may help ease the burden.
Commissioner Leanna Freeman said that she doesn't believe that Francis Field should host any multi-day events. "If the solution is making these events move, I'm not convinced that would work. Maybe we shouldn't have multi-day events; they're just too big."
While Mayor Nancy Shaver said she recognizes the importance of some of these events in the community, she also acknowledged that doing away with festivals may be a viable solution, adding, "Maybe we just don't want to do them anymore."
Shaver and Freeman are not alone in their opinions when it comes to these events.
"I stopped attending festivals downtown about two years ago. Bad traffic and crowds are terrible," says local Joe Burchfield.
Hugh Holborn, whose family has had a home across from Francis Field since the '80s, has watched firsthand as St. Augustine has grown from a "quiet town" into a booming tourist destination.
Holborn notes, "St. Augustine and the Tourist Development Council have done a great job marketing St. Augustine, but unfortunately to the point that we're now just completely overrun. They got carried away."
Holborn says that during festivals, nearby neighbors "pretty much hunker down," staying indoors until events are over, which sometimes means not leaving the house for entire weekends. He says there are multiple reasons for the gridlock in his area, and that the congestion isn't solely caused by nearby events.
"It's not just the festivals; it's busy. We've had an explosion in population and traffic. In the last few years, it's become really noticeable."
Holborn believes that moving the locations of the festivals will help ease some of the strains on locals in the downtown area.
"I think it's time that the city look at maybe moving these events somewhere else," he said. "It's going to take some real planning from the city, and some difficult, unpopular decisions, but I think you have to put a rein on things to keep [downtown] from becoming a circus."
The public affairs director suggests blackout dates for festivals during peak times in St. Augustine's tourist season, which in some cases would block festivals at Francis Field for entire months, including January, March and April. Some events were originally to be grandfathered in; however, commissioners asked to have that language removed.
This would affect longstanding events, such as Rhythm & Ribs and the Lion's Club Seafood Festival, as well as more recent favorites such as the Celtic Festival, which has grown in popularity over the last few years. Changing the dates could result in some festivals closing up shop.
City officials have suggested that if organizers can't agree on other dates, these events can still be held at the county fairgrounds, which wouldn't be blacked out under the proposed resolution.
For events like the Celtic Festival, which is time-sensitive to St. Patrick's Day, changing dates is not an option. They may change venues, but organizers believe that could result in a significant loss of revenue for both festivals and downtown businesses.
Tim Constantine, who lives in the World Golf Village area and attends the festivals, thinks changing locations is a bad idea. "Moving the festival to a remote location would be ridiculous. The crowds that come are spending money in local restaurants, bars and shops and give flavor and personality to our town."
Plenty of other county residents agree, and say the festivals are worth the trip. "Traffic wasn't bad last year. Got a great spot in the parking garage and left just fine," said Katrina Sherman, who grew up in St. Augustine and attends the Celtic Festival with friends. "I loved all the booths, jewelry, clothes and whatnot."
Event organizers are feverishly working to gain support before the new resolution is heard on April 9, at which time commissioners are expected to reach a decision on the matter. Organizers have started groups online and are asking people to contact city officials and ask them not to cancel the festivals that so many locals and visitors alike have come to love and enjoy year in and year out. They may have somewhat of an uphill battle, however, since current infrastructure is unable to handle the traffic demands of the crowds, and both commissioners and nearby residents want relief.