Clay County year in review: parks, tourism improve

BCC still faces challenges of keeping pace, paying for growth

By Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 12/23/19

 

CLAY COUNTY – Mike Cella, who was the Board of County Commissioners chairman for most of the year, talked with Clay Today about the highlights of 2019, its challenges and what the …

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Clay County year in review: parks, tourism improve

BCC still faces challenges of keeping pace, paying for growth

Posted

CLAY COUNTY – Mike Cella, who was the Board of County Commissioners chairman for most of the year, talked with Clay Today about the highlights of 2019, its challenges and what the future holds in 2020. The year was defined by organizational shifts, increased focused on parks and recreation and increased tourism. 

“It was an exciting year and sure, it had its ups and downs, but I think overall, we accomplished some great things in Clay County,” Cella said.

At the top of his list of highlights, Cella said hiring a new county manager was one of the bigger tasks the BCC tackled in 2019. When previous county manager Stephanie Kopelousos left her position to work for Gov. Ron DeSantis in January, emergency management services chief Lorin Mock had to step in and sit as interim manager. He sat in that position until June when the BCC hired Howard Wanamaker as the new county manager.

“He’s done a great job so far,” Cella said. “He pays attention and gets the job done, no matter how tough. He’s learning the ropes and ins and outs of the county and he’s excelled so far with any task we ask of him.”

Another highlight for Cella was the reopening of Camp Chowenwaw’s pier which acts as an area to enjoy the natural highlights of the St. Johns River and gives people a place to gather and fish. Cella said driving over the bridge nearby on U.S. Highway 17 always brings a smile to his face because there are always people on the pier.

Keeping in with parks and recreation, Fleming Island finally received a long-promised baseball park.

“I remember a woman telling me her son was promised a baseball field in Fleming Island when he was 8 years old and now he’s in college playing baseball,” Cella said. “It’s been a long time coming but I’m happy we finally made it happen.”

Cella is the chairman of the Tourism Development Council, and he said 2019 was one of the best years yet for county tourism. The county received a $500,000 grant for the agricultural fair grounds, which soon get new exhibition halls and other improvements. He also said tourism had a $52 million impact on Clay County and the number will rise as more and more events take place.

At the tail end of 2018, Keystone Heights’ Fire Station 11 opened and Cella said it’s been a great success.

“It was right at the end of last year, but that station has done great things in 2019,” Cella said. “It’s one of our county’s finest.”

Cella said the county is looking to create a new fire station on U.S. Highway 16 next year.

Just as the county had its highlights, the BCC faced some challenges throughout the year, chief among them being a stormwater fee that would have helped maintain county stormwater. The flat $60 fee for each property owner was dropped after residents showed up in droves, filling up the BCC chambers and one additional chamber.

“People see that as a failure on our part, but I think it’s a success for our government,” Cella said. “We tried to do something, the people spoke, we listened to them and we made the right call by choosing not to move forward with it.

“That’s how government is supposed to work.”

The BCC also found itself entangled with a lawsuit with the school board after the BCC denied putting a sales tax on a special election ballot. It raised tensions between the two governmental bodies. The BCC won the lawsuit in the end and Cella said the relationship between the two has improved significantly since.

The new year should bring a lot of growth and infrastructure construction, according to Cella. As the First Coast Expressway nears closer and closer, Clay County is working to prepare the county’s infrastructure for the influx of drivers passing through the area.

The BCC is looking into more than $130 million in bonds to repair roads deemed deficient and critical.

“That will go a long way toward preparing our county for what’s to come,” Cella said.

Cella said residents in Clay County can look forward to infrastructure improvements, continued focus on public safety, more events at places like the fairground and continued due diligence when using taxpayer money.

“It’ll be an exciting year,” Cella said. “You’ll begin to see a lot happening around here to prepare for what Clay County is projected to become.”

County Manager Howard Wanamaker said he looks forward to diving headfirst into 2020 with a better grasp on the inner workings of the county.

“I am looking forward to 2020 and will continue to focus on public safety, economic development and government efficiency and performance,” Wanamaker said. “I will work closely with the [BCC], county staff and constitutional officers to find effective and economical solutions for managing growth and protecting the safety and well-being of our residents while improving the quality of life we all enjoy here in Clay County.”

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