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Community profile: St. Augustine, FL

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Gregg Gibson, MD had never been to St. Augustine before he came for a job interview from his residency in Milwaukee, but from the first time he drove through downtown and over the Bridge of Lions he wanted to stay.

“I just kind of felt like ‘this is home. I like this place. I don’t want to interview anyplace else’,” Gibson says. “It had some kind of magical charm or something to it.”

Gibson explains that he was looking for a warm, ocean climate and thought he would like coastal  Florida, but he was unsure where to find just the right place. “I knew I wanted to head south, but I wanted to stay in the northern half (of Florida), because south Florida is kind of overgrown. Northern Florida still has a little of the southern tradition in with it,” he says.

St. Augustine’s history began long before the South had a tradition and even longer before the snow birds and sun worshippers began flocking to the Sunshine State. America’s “Oldest City,” St. Augustine is the site of the first successful European settlement in the continental United States. The Spanish, who attempted to colonize Florida beginning in 1513, established St. Augustine in 1565. The Castillo de San Marcos was begun in 1672 to protect the citizens and was never conquered by force. The fort, with its walls of coquina stone 14 feet thick at the base, is a national monument that still stands guard over the city. The town withstood attacks from the English in 1586, 1668, 1702, and 1740.

St. Augustine was ceded to the English, however, in 1763 along with the rest of Florida, but was returned to the Spanish in 1784. In 1821 the city, along with the rest of Florida, became part of the United States.

St. Augustine was not associated with leisure until Standard Oil co-founder Henry M. Flagler came to St. Augustine in the late 1880s with grand ideas for developing an American Riviera. He built the luxurious Ponce de Leon and Alcazar hotels and founded the hospital, among other projects. The boom subsided when Flagler took his ambition further south, but he left his mark on the town and
his name on a number of public facilities.

Laid back and personal

St. Augustine and St. Johns County lay between the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean on Florida’s northeastern coast. Just across Matanzas Bay is Anastasia Island with St. Augustine Beach and Crescent Beach. To the north, Vilano Beach, South Ponte Vedra Beach, and Ponte Vedra Beach are also within St. Johns County.

The city’s historical sites and proximity to the beach have made it a vacation destination for decades, yet it is still a small community where people greet one another on the street.

James Grimes, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon, looked for a safe, smaller community where he could be near the ocean. After growing up in Southern California and training in Hawaii, Grimes was ready for a change of pace. “I was interested in northern Florida mostly because I didn’t want to go to a large town like Miami or even Orlando,” says Grimes. “I actually liked this little town a lot and the people seemed real nice.”

The small-town sense of community has made Grimes and his family feel welcome since they came to St. Augustine a year and a half ago. “Everybody knows each other,” he says. “Whenever I ride my bike anywhere, there are 10 people I see. When I go to the store there are 10 people that I see. I really like that.”

Grimes says he already feels he has tapped into the community network. “I’ve only been here a year but when I meet someone I almost always know either their brother, their mother, their father, their wife, their kid, someone,” says Grimes. “It’s real neat to see that in a relationship and to utilize that. It’s a neat interaction with people.”

A number of St. Augustine citizens actually have familial roots here. Florida native may seem like a contradiction in terms, but Gibson, an internist who took over a retiring physician’s practice, says he treats a number of people whose families have been in St. Augustine for generations. “A lot of the people that I’ve taken care of are second, third, and fourth generation whose ancestors have been in St. Augustine forever. They came over with Ponce de Leon or something like that.”

Grimes says he likes St. Augustine’s relatively small size, but he also enjoys its growth mentality. “I’ve always been in a growth area. I think it would be hard for us to be in an area that wasn’t growing,” he says.

A growth mode

Thanks to overcrowded coasts elsewhere in Florida and a pleasant climate, St. Augustine is booming again in recent years. Gibson has witnessed growth in the city since he arrived five years ago. “Even though it’s the oldest city and has been around as far as a tourist destination and all, it’s really growing a lot more all of a sudden,” Gibson says. “There is a lot of opportunity and the medical community has
grown, so it’s not just the weather, the golf and the boating.”

St. Johns County’s population has grown by 14 percent in the last 15 years and is expected to grow by nearly 30 percent in the next 10. American Demographics magazine named St. Johns County among the hottest counties in the nation based on the quality of the business climate, rapid population growth, rising income, average population density, and other factors.

The community has succeeded in luring industry to support its economic base of tourism.  Manufacturing and industrial businesses include aircraft and aluminum manufacturing, specialty foods, yacht building, and even some agriculture, such as potatoes, cabbage, and a hot pepper that grows only in this area.

The schools, airport, and healthcare organizations are working to keep up with growth and anticipate future needs. The airport is developing an expansion project, possibly including an industrial park. New schools are also in the works and the hospital is building two office and patient towers.

For the time being, the cost of living here is more reasonable than the rest of Florida, including real estate prices, according to Gibson. “I think for Florida it’s pretty reasonable, but it’s going up fast. South Florida and these other places are already pretty fully developed. Jacksonville is growing down and these other places are growing up.”

he community is trying to avoid mistakes made by overgrown coastal communities elsewhere,  however. “They’ve not let this part of Florida become overbuilt,” says Gibson. “You won’t find any real high skyscrapers and condo buildings. They are pretty strict about the growth to keep it controlled.”

Most of the homes in St. Augustine are relatively new, but there are also older neighborhoods with homes from Victorian and earlier development eras. Spanish architecture with clay tile roofs and stucco walls such as that seen in Flagler College, is popular for public buildings, including Flagler Hospital, as well as resorts and homes. Neighborhoods range from condominiums on the beach and golf communities to meticulously restored old town homes.

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Bett Coffman

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