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Mayport and Atlantic Beach hope new ships, sailors will bring back businesses and students

ALONG MAYPORT ROAD | There was a time, remembered by these bartenders and waitresses and business owners. Life was fuller. The schools were full. The streets were full. The shops were full.

Then, the USS John F. Kennedy left in 2007. The carrier could hold up to 5,000 sailors, who, with their spouses, and their children, kept the Mayport community afloat. Without them, Mayport and Atlantic Beach needed to survive, to become self-sufficient until a nuclear-powered carrier was supposed to come in 2014.

The new carrier got delayed and delayed, until finally, the federal government couldn’t agree on a budget and automatic cuts changed the carrier’s timeline to: To Be Determined.

But the United States Navy has declared it can’t put all its sailors and ships in Norfolk, Va., so Friday began the relocating of the first of three amphibious transport docks. The USS New York arrived at Naval Station Mayport, and business owners and community leaders hope that it and the coming ships next year will reinvigorate the community with 2,000 sailors and their families.

One of the first challenges the beach community had to face after the Kennedy’s departure was how to keep its schools open. Finegan Elementary School, Mayport Elementary School and Mayport Middle School fell to some of the lowest enrollment rates in the county. Low-school enrollment means the district is paying more per-student at those schools.

To keep the schools open, Mayport Elementary and Mayport Middle schools added magnet programs in coastal science.

This helped somewhat, said School Board member Fel Lee, who represents the area.

“We’re at a point where the schools may not be making enough money,” he said, “but we want to keep them open.”

He said even if the School Board could find non-military families to fill the schools, it would be a problem when more ships, and maybe a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, come to Mayport and needed those open spots.

“Military families are transient. We’re going to have them for two years, maybe longer. We’re kind of at the mercy of the Navy.”

Businesses left

Even after the USS Kennedy left, Safe Harbor Seafood Market in Mayport still fills daily with sailors and Coast Guard service members.

Chris Wooten, who runs the market, said the problem lies farther south on Mayport Road.

“So many gas stations are gone,” he said. “When you can’t make it on Mayport Road, that’s the Navy.”

In one shopping center, a Larry’s Giant Subs closed. Next door, a #1 Nails sign hung high above an empty storefront. WAXING, read the letters on a door. Lat Purser and Associates, read a sign in the window. “For lease,” it said.

Next to that is a vast, empty tomb of a former grocery store. A Food Lion left about 18 months ago. Nothing replaced it. All that’s left are fluorescent lights and shiny linoleum.

After the Kennedy left, things started settling, but then Food Lion closed and it’s been hard attracting businesses ever since, said property owner Rob Crider. Even without the military, he said, there’s enough people living nearby that the shopping center should be healthy.

“If somebody goes in with the idea they’re dependent on the military,” he said, “they’re not in control of their business.”

So when the Kennedy was decommissioned just before the economy collapsed and the Waffle House left and the Larry’s Giant Subs left and the Food Lion left and store after store peeled away from Mayport Road, Atlantic Beach needed to do something. It passed a Mayport Road improvement plan: adding a median, removing signage distracting from businesses, focusing the police on Mayport Road, cleaning the area, beefing up code enforcement.

“It looks much better,” said Atlantic Beach City Manager Jim Hanson. “We’ve made a lot of progress, and there’s considerable progress to be made.”

“It will continue to grow,” said Atlantic Beach Mayor Carolyn Woods. “We’re so happy to partner with the military.”

Just a mile south of the base, Mayport Tavern, which prides itself on being the closest bar where all employees are required to wear clothes, prepared for the New York’s arrival Friday with an extra bartender on duty and others on call in case of emergency. Bartender Keshia Yow said they want to make a good impression so the sailors keep coming back.

“We’re bubbly,” Yow said. “We’re nice. We’re all good looking.”

Yow, a lifelong resident of the area, said she’s seen and heard of all the businesses closing, but she thinks the New York — and the USS Iwo Jima and USS Fort McHenry when they come next year — will help kick-start the economy along Mayport Road.

Cedric Malone, the owner of Platinum Cuts II, said he’s already trying to hire a fourth barber because he expects his business will get busier with the new sailors.

“You have to perfect a military cut,” he said. “When they’re out to sea, we have to survive on what we have saved. … You’ve got to get a relationship with the wife and kids.”

Mayport Naval Station commanding officer Capt. Wes McCall said it’s been his job to help the sailors aboard the USS New York prepare for life in the First Coast.

“The biggest winners in this — not only Mayport, but the city of Jacksonville, the businesses and the schools. Really, the biggest winners are them, the sailors.”

Thirty of the married sailors have signed leases at apartments.

“The New York has prepared a lot,” McCall said. “But it’s difficult especially during the holiday season.”

“The beauty of this ship,” said Jacksonville military affairs director Victor G. Guillory, “is that it’s conventionally powered.”

A nuclear-powered ship would require specialized workers to repair the ship, instead of the same contractors who work on most of the ships at Mayport now. Rep. Ander Crenshaw said it’ll take time, but eventually Mayport will get a nuclear-powered carrier, which often holds up to 5,000 sailors. Keeping all of them in Norfolk is too dangerous, he said, for national security.

“When you put all your eggs in one basket,” Crenshaw said, “you’ve got a problem.”

The fishing village lives

As for the official Mayport fishing village, established May 1, 1562, Sandra Tuttle doesn’t think it needs much. A few nearby restaurants. A bank. Another church.

She’s a ninth-generation Mayport resident. Her family first came to Mayport in the 1700s.

She’s got history books that mark how Mayport has changed over the centuries. Her kitchen table is overflowing with photographs, some dating to the Civil War and many from the beginning of the 20th century. When the Navy came in the middle of the century, her family sold some of its property. “We didn’t want to at the time, but we knew we had to. … We love our Navy,” she said. “We always have.”

“It’s not a dying village,” Tuttle said of Mayport. “Not. At. All.”

“I live where I love, and I love where I live.”

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