There’s a centuries-old adage that says, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” and Fernandina Beach Main Street Executive Director Arlene Filkoff is taking it to heart.
Filkoff announced last week that she is retiring from her position by the end of the year, and she intends to make this retirement – her fourth – stick.
“I’ve reached an age where I don’t always have a filter,” Filkoff joked Monday when talking with the News-Leader about her plan.
After serving as a Fernandina Beach city commissioner and mayor, Filkoff had largely been out of the limelight for several years when Main Street’s first executive director resigned abruptly in the fall of 2017. She had previously been a member of the Main Street Board of Directors and was invited by the then-current board to help brainstorm about what to do regarding the opening and the program in general. If the local Main Street had lost its accreditation, it would not have been able to reapply for another 10 years, she explained.
Filkoff offered to prepare a three-month assessment and then stepped in as what was supposed to have been interim executive director – emphasis on interim. “I even had business cards printed that said ‘interim.’ It did me no good whatsoever,” she said but admitted, “It was as much my own doing (as anyone else’s) because once I got into it, there were some things I wanted to see through.”
Filkoff didn’t need to have her arm twisted to stay on for the past two years, though, because she readily admits the city’s downtown with its rich history is her favorite area of the city.
“I think that what we’ve always known was missing was most people live in neighborhoods where they have a homeowners association … (looking) out for them, but downtown doesn’t have that. … They needed to have an advocate to keep that going. … What I think needs to happen for a treasure like what we have in downtown is to have someone to care for it, to advocate for it. That is the purpose of the Main Street organization,” Filkoff said.
In addition, she says she’s always felt “that the downtown was the primary economic engine for the city. … People may come for the beach but they come back for the downtown.”
One of the projects Filkoff wanted to “see through” was improving the gateways into the city’s downtown, which include South Eighth Street and Atlantic Avenue. Another was expanding the boundaries of the area Main Street serves out of the downtown area.
“Many of our (bed-and-breakfasts) are outside of that original district and almost all of our original historic churches, so we drew the boundaries to present to the city. What we ended up finding out when we presented to the City Commission is that they wanted (the boundaries) bigger than that,” Filkoff said, indicating commissioners wanted Main Street to serve businesses down South Eighth Street all the way to the city limits at Jasmine Street as well in the city’s Community Redevelopment Area and around Central Park. The state recently approved that change.
And its service to those businesses, not just marketing of them, that Filkoff emphasized. For instance, she said, Main Street has helped businesses in the organization’s new boundaries secure tax credits for which they’ve been eligible for many years.
That commitment to service couldn’t have come at a better time than during the past few months as the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns meant to contain it have ravaged the area’s economy, which has traditionally depended heavily on tourism.
Filkoff said Main Street has been a conduit for all types of information to help local businesses, from guidelines to resources to available economic assistance.
“The situation downtown has been far from wonderful. … We tried to do as much of as much as we could, tried to provide as much information – latest and greatest – as much as we could. We facilitated conference calls with the (Small Business Development Corporation) to try to help (local businesses) with questions. I was on the phone with banks constantly to try to find banks that were providing help. … One business had to find a new place, and we assisted with that, too. It was all hands on deck, whatever you had to do to help people keep afloat,” Filkoff said of the services Main Street has been providing. “It’s a connecting-the-dots thing and assisting them as much as we could that way.”
Main Street’s education about the coronavirus and how to keep businesses and their customers safe has been successful, Filkoff says, as can be seen through the recent voluntary closures by several area restaurants after employees came into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus or who had tested positive themselves. Amelia Tavern, T-Rays Burger Station, and The Sandbar & Kitchen all announced over the past week that they would be conducting intensive sanitation of their facilities and testing of their employees.
Filkoff said she’s proud of those businesses owners for “doing the right thing, the responsible thing.”
While Main Street has certainly kept Filkoff busy over the past couple years, it’s not all she’s been doing. Last year, she was asked to be part of the city’s Charter Review Committee. She ended up being the CRC’s chairwoman as well.
Filkoff says that committee members were excited about serving on the committee and looking forward to giving their “two cents,” but the coronavirus resulted in the committee having to cancel many of its meetings.
“That squished a lot of discussion into a small number of meetings. We didn’t have the time to have robust discussions about some issues. It was still positive but wish we had more time,” she lamented.
As a result, one of the changes to the city’s charter about which Filkoff felt strongly didn’t make it out of the committee. She wanted Fernandina Beach residents to have the ability to petition the City Commission to consider positive proposals that never make it to the commission’s agenda. That potential change became intertwined with another that would have given residents the ability to essentially cancel items approved by city commissioners, and many committee members felt that could cause gridlock in the city, Filkoff said.
She also wanted to do away with the city’s traditional straw poll vote for mayor and allow residents to directly select the mayor and vice mayor.
Throughout her conversation with the News-Leader about her time as executive director of Main Street, Filkoff didn’t attribute any of the organization’s work or successes to herself.
“It’s a team process. There’s no way that any single person has the knowledge, expertise, skill set, or anything other than hutzpah to get some of this stuff done,” she said and explained that Main Street, at all levels, has four pillars: administration, promotions and marketing, economic vitality, and design.
“Without those councils –and their all volunteers – no one individual could pull this off,” Filkoff said. “The (executive director position) is an advocacy thing and a facilitation thing. If (the volunteers) already do something, why would we reinvent the wheel?”
Main Street has begun looking for Filkoff’s replacement, and she’s hoping that someone is hired by October so she can help to show the new executive director the ropes.