Business is the lifeblood of the city of Fernandina Beach, says City Commission candidate Ricky Robbins, and it needs to have a seat at the table of city government. The manager of Amelia Island Coffee, located on Centre Street, said he believes his experience working in the city gives him a perspective lacking on the commission.
“Business is the economic engine of the city; it’s not the beach,” Robbins said. “You don’t pay anything at the beach, nor should you. I am pro-growth, but very controlled and fiscally responsible growth.”
Robbins moved to Fernandina Beach 30 years ago and, with the exception of a short time living in Arkansas and three deployments with the Army National Guard, has lived here since. He is raising his sons, Jackson, 5, and Carter, 4, in the city and wants city government to be fiscally responsible so they can raise their families here as well.
“I want my kids to be able to afford to live on the island 20 years from now, and if it keeps going the way it’s going, a 34% tax increase is not going to make my kids be able to live here,” Robbins said.
Some restaurants in the city that had reopened as part of the nationwide trend of getting the economy moving have temporarily closed recently after either someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus came in contact with the restaurant or staff or as a precaution, using the time the business is closed for deep cleaning. Robbins said he, as the manager of a downtown business, has put previous, stricter guidelines in place and made sure they are enforced. He said he does not believe the city should create its own guidelines.
“The city has been mum since day one, and I don’t think they should step in now. I think it could give the city a black eye,” Robbins said. “They have done a good job, saying that CDC, state and county guidelines should be followed. Businesses don’t want to shut down, and I think they believe it’s better to take a one- to five-day hit now than a longer shutdown later.”
Giving the authority to enforce state and county guidelines to the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies is part of the reason businesses are “doing what they’re doing,” Robbins said, and are a step in the right direction.
Robbins said fiscal responsibility is his priority for the city. He said the city can provide the services its residents need, without paying ever-increasing taxes, with proper financial planning and encouraging business. One thing that he says is thwarting business is fees.
“We have the highest impact fees allowed by state standards and I don’t think that we need to be penalizing existing or new businesses for trying to open or expand,” he said. “If the city cannot financially lower impact fees, then we have to find another way to do it. It has to be good for both sides, and it has to make fiscal sense for the city. I don’t think the city should be allowed to charge as much money as possible. It doesn’t make businesses want to grow, it doesn’t make new businesses come in.”
An example of how impact fees should be reconsidered, Robbins says, is the apartment complex where he lives, Vintage Amelia Island. He said that while the city allowed the developer to build on the property, the one-time impact fees collected will not pay for the long-term resources the additional city residents will require such as added police and firefighters and street maintenance.
Controlled growth is what Robbins believes would best benefit the city, supporting development while keeping in mind that growth and conservation need to be balanced. He said he does not support the city spending money to buy land for conservation but rather should be mindful of how land is developed.
“It’s not going too fast, but not going too slow with how you develop and grow, making sure you keep some tree conservancy in there,” he said. “Do I think all 800 acres left in the city that are developable need to be conservation? Not at all. I am pro-growth, but I call it ‘controlled growth.’ Someone comes to us with a project. If it’s on land that isn’t zoned for it, it needs to go through all the proper process(es) to be rezoned for whatever the buyer wants to do with it. For me, if the city allows a development, within that, the city needs to budget.”
He said city government should work to preserve the assets it has instead of “new and shiny things,” such as the park proposed for the Amelia River waterfront.
“I do not believe in the commercialization of the waterfront,” Robbins said. “I don’t think there should be a barge in the water or a two-story event space. I believe the seawall elevation has to happen and the realigning of the parking lots would benefit downtown business by improving the flow of traffic, but I don’t want to do that if it’s going to be a detriment to the small businesses that operate out of the marina. We don’t need to close a parking lot and make it a greenspace. Instead of buying something shiny and new, let’s go fix up (the) Peck (Center) or renovate (the) Atlantic (Recreation Center). Let’s do the depot bathrooms. I don’t need to buy a bunch of shiny new things when I have a lot of historic, preservable things. That’s what the locals want, the preservation of the history of the island. Keep it quaint and hometown. That’s fiscal responsibility.”
The marina is also city-owned and has been largely inoperable after it was damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. While it was not taking in money from operations, it has become indebted to other city accounts to stay afloat. Robbins said that he would consider forgiving the debt and believes the city should maintain ownership of the marina. He said that the marina should take in
enough money to support itself, but that the city should not ask it to be profitable, since it brings visitors, and dollars, into the city.
Another area of concern within city government has been its various boards and committees, made up entirely of volunteers that study issues and advise the City Commission. Board members say they feel their input is not appreciated, as the commission does not always follow their recommendations. Robbins said more guidance from the city could improve those relationships.
“I believe committees start from the top,” he said. “They need to be given direct guidance on what their job is. (The) Special Events (Committee) doesn’t know what their purpose is. The city manager needs to define their purpose. They feel like they are spinning their wheels. If we advise you and every time we advise you, (the commission) goes opposite, we are going to lose those volunteers, and volunteers are the most valuable asset to any organization because they are giving their time for free. They should be treated better than the highest paid person in the city. There needs to be, from the top, more cohesion.”
Robbins sits on the Fernandina Beach Main Street Board of Directors, a position he says gave him the “push” to get involved in city politics. Main Street receives funding from the City Commission, and Robbins said that, in the interest of avoiding any conflicts, he plans to resign from his seat on the board.
Along with fiscal responsibility and support for business, Robbins said he wants to be a voice for tourism. He said that, while city businesses could stay in business with the income they receive from locals, the business provided by tourists allows businesses to thrive and grow. He believes the thing that brings tourists to Fernandina Beach – a small town feel – needs to be protected for future generations.
“I tell my friends, ‘I live where you vacation,’” he said. “I grew up running around Central Park, playing basketball at Peck. I enjoyed the beaches, went to Fantastic Fudge. I want my kids to raise their kids with the enjoyment I’m getting raising there here. If we turn into a big destination city we would probably move. That’s not the environment I want. It’s a Cheers community – everybody knows your name. I just want them to have that. Ten or 12 years from now, when they are old
enough to enjoy the city and all aspects of it, I want it to be the great city it is, with changes here and there. There’s been changes since I grew up, and not all of them are bad. That’s what’s important to me for them.”
The deadline to register to vote in the Aug. 18 primary is July 20. Early primary voting is Aug. 7-15. The deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 3 general election is Oct. 5. Early general election voting is Oct. 19-31.