Dr. Chip Ross is the first to admit he’s “not a warm and fuzzy person,” but, he says, he gets things done, so he’s running for a second time to finish the work he started during his first term. Ross currently holds the Group 3 seat on the City Commission.
“I want to go on with projects we’ve started and continue the good work we’ve done over the past three years,” Ross said recently.
What is he most proud of? That there have been more than 700 votes taken by the City Commission while he has been in office, and he has voted with the majority 98% of the time.
“When I came in, they thought I was going to be a ‘bomb thrower’ and disrupt the entire process, but I’ve worked to make it an inclusive process,” Ross said. “There were some big votes (when) I disagreed, but I’ve worked hard to get people to come together so that there’s inclusiveness within the entire community.”
Ross is a firm believer in becoming part of the community. He became active in community affairs when, shortly after moving to his home on North Third Street near the Port of Fernandina, community organizers knocked on his door to talk about efforts by the Ocean Highway and Port Authority to turn two residential lots into a parking lot. Working on that issue led to interest in the Amelia River waterfront, which made Ross realize that to really affect change, he needed to become part of the city.
“I spent a year trying to move that agenda forward and got not much traction, so I decided to run to see if you could change it from the inside,” he said. “What working from the inside does is gives access. I can’t change things myself. You need three (out of five commissioner) votes.”
Ross said his management style is “walking around,” spending 30-50 hours a week on commission business. He visits the marina daily and attends most meetings of the city’s various boards and committees.
“That’s how you get the pulse of the community,” he explained. “You really see exactly what the real problems are in real time with people, like the variances, the enforcement board, the Historic District Council. It’s people’s lives and that’s where you learn about it. It’s hard to get that from the minutes. I believe in management by walking around. I have gone around with waste management, with city employees. I go every Saturday to Main Beach and Ocean Avenue, checking out the parking and the situation. I see for myself what’s going on.”
Ross has a list of accomplishments where his vote played an integral part: passing ordinances that promote conservation and limit development, integrating city staff, committees and boards, and getting the Fernandina Harbor Marina repaired and upgraded.
The marina is something Ross is passionate about. He visits the marina every day and stays current on its condition. He believes the company that currently manages the marina, Westrec Marinas, has performed poorly. His concerns included spearheading a Request For Proposals for a new management company.
He also believes the current financial sinkhole the marina is in can be fixed.
“We need to find a way to pay off the marina now,” he said. “The marina is essentially rebuilt, and I’m proud of that. I am the one who recruited the project manager (Bronson Lamb), who was hired by the city as a project manager for the repairs and upgrades to the facility. We have to pay for that, and we can pay for the marina. We need to spread the debt over 20 years, but there is a way forward, particularly with new management.”
Ross also wants to ensure the marina is financially self-sustaining. He says a new management company is the key.
“The two reasons I want new management are – we have a multi-million dollar facility that I want to maintain and I want marketing,” Ross said. “There’s several services out there, such as Snag-a-Slip, where you can book online. We don’t do that. Compare our website to (the websites of) the companies that put bids in. They’re not as good. We need to market that marina and, just as the (Amelia Island Tourist Development Council) puts heads in beds, we need to put boats in the marina.”
Conservation is also near and dear to Ross. He recruited the North Florida Land Trust to work with the city to identify and purchase property for conservation. The non-profit NFLT has raised money match city funds for some land purchases. Ross said he will continue to work to protect the 900 buildable lots in the city, many of which he says are on environmentally sensitive land.
Despite his calls for inclusivity, Ross realizes the city has some troubled relationships, such as the one with the
Ocean Highway and Port Authority.
Ross hopes newly elected OHPA Commissioner Miriam Hill will help mend that one. While he believes the relationship between the city and the county is generally amiable, Ross believes the county should contribute to the city’s cost of maintaining beaches and recreational facilities. He says county residents are the majority users of city facilities.
“City residents subsidize a lot of the recreation programs,” Ross said. “They should be available to the public, but we’re just a small city of 12,000 people and we cannot continue to subsidize all these people.
“We need to work with the county, but the county is not particularly conducive to wanting to work with us. They view the city as a piggy bank. We give, but they are unwilling to share revenues with us.”
Ross points to failures of communication, cooperation, and coordination with the county when island beaches were closed for the pandemic and then reopened.
“When we closed the beach, we had a meeting (with the county) and agreed to a certain plan. We agreed that we would do things together, and then the way the city found out the county was opening their beaches was when a reporter called to tell me,” he said. “There was no communication. It’s a little hard. The city gets blamed.”
Working to bring the community together is his mission, so Ross says his biggest disappointment is when people do not work toward a common goal.
“I guess I’m disappointed that people sometimes can’t put aside their individual differences and come together for a common good,” he said. “I’m also disappointed that some members of the community cannot be civil. I believe that you can agree to disagree, but calling names – there are some columnists in the city who go after people personally. It’s not about personalities. It’s about working together for the common good.
“You need to be able to compromise. The beach parking thing was highly controversial, and I reached out to the other side and asked how we could come together for a common good. There was no name calling, and while we didn’t agree on a lot of things, we agreed that we wanted certain things and came to a compromise. It disappoints me when people can’t sit down and have a conversation based, not on emotion, but on facts and try to figure out the common good.”
Ross said that while he is not a Fernandina Beach native, the crucial difference is he does not live here by chance but by conscious decision.
“People make a point that they were born here and have been here a long time. I will make the point that I had a choice,” he said. “My wife and I started in Texas and worked our way down the coast to Key West and up to Charleston. Out of all the places we went, this is the place we chose. I made a conscious decision to come here. It wasn’t by chance. I could have gone anywhere I wanted. This is what we chose. It’s a great place to live, a fantastic community, and I am committed to preserving it.
“My biggest goal going forward is to have a sustainable city with an excellent quality of life, financially sustainable, that we can maintain our environment and not become a concrete canyon, but maintain the funky, cool community that we live in.”