November 17, 2018, the Alliance, Hastings Rotary Club and our partners will celebrate a newly complete 20.8-mile section of the Loop through downtown Hastings that connects Palatka with not quite St. Augustine – but that connection is coming thanks to a new St. Johns-County-authorized route study awarded in August.
Bands will greet cyclists and car drivers arriving from at least three counties. Bunting and kites will fly, and a farmers market start weekly set-up. Food trucks and sidewalk vendors will refresh visitors at pop-up parks. Bounce houses will entertain kids and a horse-shoe competition challenge adults.
Festivities start at 10:00 and continue till 2:00. The trail ribbon-cutting takes place at noon.
Real estate agents will showcase available houses and storefronts. Interest in properties right away perked up at a Hastings Investors Workshop the end of May, when 81 registered. Deals have since been talked about, though not yet announced. Hastings after all is an easy 20 minutes from Palatka, 25 from St. Augustine. New single-family housing is already going up – and selling – along the few blocks between the trail and SR 207.
The trail opening will mark a turnaround for this once prosperous farm center of a mere 650, pummeled across a half-century by the loss of community schools and train service, the consolidation of family farms, job loss, fire that wiped out half the commercial district and the speedway through town that the 4-laning of SR 207 became.
Finally, voters last year abandoned the unaffordable luxury of self-governance by repealing their town charter. Hastings merged with Florida’s wealthiest per capita county.
Yet the town’s identity was too rich to give up.
The farm corridor that extends inland across three counties from St. Augustine channels American history. Timucuan farms sustained the Ancient City. “Farm-to-table” endowed Flagler Era hospitality.
At the urging of the Alliance, St. Johns County has proclaimed the corridor “critical to the survival of local agricultural communities.” Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam at a recent Chamber of Commerce breakfast at Blue Sky Farms praised what the corridor could accomplish.
“To see this county come together with an agritourism corridor is very exciting. . . it creates a whole new revenue stream potential. For society, it creates the opportunity to bring your kids and grandkids out here to see how all of this happened and have some good, old fashioned family fun.”
That’s the opportunity the Alliance has taken up: to strengthen the agrarian economy by introducing farm visits, by adding off-farm activities of a compatible kind, and by the renewal of downtown Hastings.
When the new section of the Loop opens, hundreds of cyclists a week will start coming through town. Bike repair stations will open maybe together with food spots. Investors will open sidewalk cafes. Locals will have new places to hang out near the trail. Demand will grow.
A leadership team is forming that so far includes existing merchants, family farmers, Flagler College, St. Johns River State College, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Florida Planning & Zoning Assn., the St. Johns and Putnam County Chambers of Commerce, Putnam Blueways & Trails, Velo Fest Community Initiative, the North Florida Bicycle Club, the Council on Aging, Friends of the Hastings Branch Library and TeamUp Hastings. Interest grows fast.
Where before there were only individual farms and isolated activities, the Tri-County Agritourism Corridor is becoming a defining wherewithal, an umbrella collection of things to see, do and enjoy.
Already in place or coming are:
- The Florida Agricultural Museum
- The Bartram Heritage Trail
- Armstrong, the 300-soul Gullah community at the southern terminus of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area
- Events at 3 county fairgrounds including county fairs and Cracker Days
- Produce, honey, home-made pie, organic egg and premium Florida-brand peanut outlets.
- Authentic country stores
- A local crafts barn
- The seasonal crop maze at Sykes Family Farms
- The seasonal late-winter azalea spectacle at Ravine Gardens State Park
- Spring and fall county celebrations
- Farm-based brunches, plant swaps and kite flying
- Barn jams
- Pubs galore
- Horse farms, training centers, and an Andalusia Cattle farm
- Two of the last three public ferries on the St. Johns River
- Local riverfront and lakeshore restaurants and places to stay, from fish camps to B&Bs to a duded-up ranch cabin
And of course the region also claims coastal St. Augustine, riverfront Palatka and lakeside Crescent City.
A detailed calendar of corridor activities will be ready by fall 2018 for DIY touring.
Your feedback welcomed.