Historic St. Andrews Revisited

The historic St. Andrews district of Panama City, Florida is being revitalized by its citizens.
Historic St. Andrews Revisited
Panama City, FL
As you drive along Beck Ave. in historic St. Andrews, you can't help but notice significant changes. What some might call a face-lift; the members and volunteers of the St. Andrews Waterfront Partnership call a work in progress.

"It started with town hall meetings in 1995," said Nancy Wengel, St. Andrews Waterfront Project Director. "It was a great way to find out what the community wanted to see happen to this historic neighborhood. A visioning coordinator was hired and 18 months later a vision had been born. A Waterfronts Florida Grant was obtained to assist in the technical aspects of the tasks at hand, and a project director was hired."

At the heart of the partnership is the St. Andrews Waterfront Partnership Board. The board is a representative group of citizens and business owners in the St. Andrews area, which partners in the public and private sectors, to achieve goals set forth in the 1989 Community Redevelopment Area Plan and the 1996 Visioning Plan.

"Our vision statement for the area reads: Historic St. Andrews, a village by the bay where cultural attractions, entertainment, and commerce thrive," said Wengel.

The goal is to return St. Andrews to the thriving community it once was. The history of this area dates back to the days of the early Spanish explorations. This natural safe harbor was considered an important port and Spaniards attempted several settlements, the most notable to be found on Shell Island, in a shallow-water cove known to this day as Spanish Shanty Cove.

General Andrew Jackson was the first to survey St. Andrews Bay, and many of his soldiers and officers returned to settle the area when it opened for settlement in 1821. Old Town, St. Andrews, was then established and stretched along the bay in the present day Frankford Avenue area east to the Old Town Bayou, now known as Lake Caroline.

St. Andrews was lined with towering 300-foot pines and the US Navy routinely used the timber for shipbuilding, but this area had much more to offer than woodlands.

The ex-governor of Georgia, John Clark, selected this strikingly beautiful area as a home in 1827 and that brought other influential and prominent people to the area. The community was alive with several mom and pop stores, a tavern and even a post office.

During the civil war in the 1860's, two Yankee soldiers were slaughtered and as a result, federal forces leveled all 32 homes in St. Andrews with a devastating fire that left nothing in it's path. But this wasn't the end of St. Andrews. The abundance of fish, the emerald green waters, and useful harbors surrounding the area eventually brought more families and fisherman.

The US Post Office had listed the town as St. Andrews in 1845, but in 1902, St. Andrews became known as simply St. Andrew. The post office accidentally left the "s" off of St. Andrew's address, forever changing the name of this community.

However, most still refer to the town as St. Andrews. The early 1900's also marked the beginning of a well-known landmark in St. Andrews history, Ware Mercantile. The two-story building with wharves thrived in the exact spot where present day businesses such as the Ramada Inn reside. It was owned and operated by one of the area's founding fishing families.

Before the coming of the railroad, water was used for transportation and shipping of cargo and passengers. The SS Tarpon, one of the area's most famous vessels, began its weekly haul stopping at Panama City, Millville, St. Andrews, Pensacola, Apalachicola, Carrabelle and Mobile.

For 34 years, the SS Tarpon made the scheduled trip carrying goods and people until it tragically went down with its captain, Willis Green Barrow, on September 1, 1937 off the coast of Panama City Beach. In its grasp went the cargo including 300 cases of beer and 18 of the 31 passengers aboard.

Then World War II occurred and once again the war department found St. Andrews a perfect harbor with its two heavily timbered peninsulas for protection and 200 miles of coastline. In 1942, a small installation was constructed across from Wainwright Shipyard where 102 Liberty ships and six tankers were built during the war.

The 1970's marked the most recent time when St. Andrews experienced a thriving economy. St. Andrews was home to charter and fishing boats as well as popular restaurants and watering holes. But with the building of the Hathaway Bridge, the boats, restaurants and shop owners looked for success in the tourism of Panama City Beach and St. Andrews hasn't been the same since.

The St. Andrews Waterfront Partnership plans to turn things around once again for St. Andrews. They want to see this area become a place for tourists to frequent along with the beaches.

"More and more visitors want their vacations to have some meaning," said Wengel. "They want to visit places with character, a place that has history! St. Andrews is one of these places."

The passion of the partnership is to see their dream take form and see St. Andrews become a center for commerce and entertainment.

"We have several committees that were formed to address the revitalization needs including the Economic Development committee (EDC), Design and Planning Committee (DAPCO), Events and Promotions committee, and the Historic and Cultural committee," said Wengel.

Several projects have already been completed that will address the concerns and dreams of the citizens and business owners involved in the partnership.

"A Police Substation was added to the community," said Debbie Carlin, President of the St. Andrews Waterfront Partnership. "The substation addressed the problem of making sure the area was safe and secure for visitors and residents alike."

A web page was developed to focus on the interests of the merchants and residents of St. Andrews and outline the goals of the partnership. A bicycle and pedestrian tour of the area has been added along with a boardwalk from the Marina to Uncle Ernie's restaurant, bigger signage at the corner of Beck Ave. and Hwy 98 and a Pavilion at the Oaks by the Bay Park.

The Pavilion was built using money from the CRA fund and a 50/50 matching grant involving the city and state. The citizens committee designed the structure and handled the lighting.

"What makes these improvements so important is the way in which they happened," said Carlin. "Grant money, CRA money and private donations came together to make these things possible. The residents and small business owners purchased boards used in the new boardwalk."

"That's the beauty of what is happening here, the community feels a part of what is going on," said Carlin. "The people feel like it's theirs, therefore, they police the area themselves and take care of it."

The beach between Uncle Ernie's and the marina will also experience changes in the near future. Wengel obtained a grant called the Access to Coastal Resources, which can be used to enhance coastal access. The money will be used along with the help of a local volunteer group, Citizens in Action, to clean up the beach and plant sea oats.

But one can't forget the significance of the marina. The marina has always been an anchor to the economy and life of this area and Carlin expects it to do the same in the future. Approximately 2.3 million dollars are being spent on a complete rejuvenation of the St. Andrews Marina.

"The goal was to bring the charter and party boats back to St. Andrews," said Carlin. "There will be approximately 106 slips when the work is finished and we plan to have every slip filled within the first three months!"

Carlin said that the marina would again become home to commercial boats and shrimpers.

"People will be able to walk the decks and buy shrimp right off of the boats!" said Carlin.

Along with bringing the fishing industry back to the area, the partnership is focused on attracting new businesses. The Economic Development Committee is anticipating a marketing brochure that will be distributed by the Chamber, realtors and the website in order to promote interest in the area.

"We would love to see new businesses come in, purchase the original buildings and revitalize them," said Carlin. "The Design and Planning Committee will have control of the design and plans for the community. This will ensure that whatever is done is aesthetically pleasing."

Some have already answered the call and are planning new restaurants along Beck Ave. Several properties have been sold and are in the planning stages of development. The original owner's grandson, Mitch Holman, has decided to put a new restaurant in the building that used to house Hunt's Oyster Bar.

The St. Andrew Coffeehouse is another shining example of what is happening here. Ellen Mapelsden, Chairman of the Events Committee, opened the coffeehouse after jokingly discussing it with a friend.

"My friend told me to put my money where my mouth was, and the next thing I knew, I was opening up the coffeehouse," said Mapelsden. "My grandmother lived here in the 1800's and I grew up here. Now I live in the house that I grew up in and care deeply about what is happening to this area."

The future looks even brighter for St. Andrews with several upcoming projects in the works including a major project referred to as Streetscape. Upon completion, St. Andrews will experience a redesign of Beck Ave, as well as a new lighting design and additional parking in the area. Crosswalks will be added to calm the traffic flow and slow speeds through the area.

Eventually, a Dunes Walk Over will be built on the beachside of Oaks by the Bay Park. The Walk Over will be approximately 300 ft. in length and will provide another avenue for the public to enjoy the beauty and splendor of St. Andrews Bay. This project took shape when the former project director, David Jackson, noticed that a grant was available.

"Sometimes the ideas for improvements surface when we realize that the grants are out there," said Wengel. "Once I locate them, I try to find ways to use them that will benefit everyone involved."

Carlin said that it's not only the focus of the committee to improve physical attributes, but it's also important to find ways to bring people back.

"We have an event planning committee to plan and implement special events in the area," said Carlin.

Events such as an annual Easter Egg Hunt and a Halloween Trick or Treat Trail have been a huge success. The partnership plans to use fundraising in order to pay for more of these special events. In the near future, residents and visitors will be informed of upcoming events through a kiosk that is planned for the boardwalk. The kiosk will also be a place for residents to announce anything of importance to the surrounding community.

"The CRA fund has to be used for brick and mortar expenses," said Carlin. "That is why we have to rely on fundraising to foot the costs of other things we want to do. The fundraising will be used to give back to the community."

The partnership isn't the only group that has been successful in improving St. Andrews. The St. Andrews Mardi Gras Carnival Committee Inc. began its first Mardi Gras Celebration in 1997. The first parade was held in 1998 and featured the Krewe of Dominique 'Youx and the newly formed Krewe of St. Andrews.

The Krewe of St. Andrews focuses on family and community. The event has grown to a 3-day festival and last year donated $2000 to the playground in St. Andrew. The Krewe of St. Andrews also adopted the boardwalk and has dedicated themselves to keeping it a beautiful place to visit.

"Our Mardi Gras celebration is a family event!" said Roberta Fehrenbach, Board of Directors of the St. Andrews Mardi Gras Carnival Committee, Inc. "Each year the event gets better and better. In fact, this year we will be featuring Rudy from the CBS hit, 'Survivor,' as the Grand Marshall."

This is just the beginning of what will become of St. Andrew. This historic community is poised to be one of the main attractions in Bay County thanks to the passion and heart of everyone involved.

"Business is going to come back, but before that will happen, we need to make what we have better," said Carlin. "I don't think Sam Walton made a million in a day!"

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