As the sun set along the widened expanses of the St. Johns River, Palatka Mayor Terrill Hill grabbed a cooler filled with beer and climbed aboard the Pride of Palatka. Inside the red-and-white riverboat sat a group of visiting environmental enthusiasts, eager to see the attraction locals hoped could revive the rural town they love.
Sam Carr, a Palatka native who runs a local outdoor activities promotion group, told passengers they’d soon be immersed in a waterworld of green marshes and moss and mangroves, of tall birds wading in the current and alligators lingering in the water.
The travelers hoped the old river might be the key to a prosperous future for a rural community that, like many others across the United States, has been largely left behind by the modern economy. They envision bed-and-breakfasts along the water, condominiums rising for retirees who might prize the view, and tourists flocking to experience a rare pocket of undisturbed, natural Florida.
“This is our best thing,” Carr said.
As Carr continued his talk, the sky turned dark and gray. The waves rose, and, in the distance, lightning flashed.
“We have to leave the boat,” he said as the group began to evacuate.
The return to the river would have to wait.
Palatka, a city of 10,400 swaddled by potato farms and a paper mill that employs a small fraction of the workers it once did, is desperate for an economy to call its own.
Abandoned by retailers that have moved out of their city, and disappointed that President Trump hasn’t yet delivered on his promise to restore economic opportunity to small communities, the people here say they don’t have much choice.
The alternative would be to allow their beloved home to become the next example of a dying American small town. To help save it, some have started homegrown carwashes and small restaurants and bars selling craft beers. Others have worked with developers to build apartments downtown. And officials here are striving to turn the riverfront, a resource that is unique to their city, into a future hub for tourism and a draw for retirees.
“We have to tap into our locals, our entrepreneurial spirit and our aspirations to substitute what is happening around us,” said Hill, 44, who grew up here, left to get degrees from Howard University and the University of Florida, and returned to open a law practice.
Some here thought this would be a year of revival. Trump had vowed a major deal to pour trillions into roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure projects that Palatka, like many other communities, has been seeking for years. Some Democrats, even in these tense times, said they were eager to work with him.
Instead, the only Kmart went out of business this spring, and the town’s beloved J.C. Penney closed its doors last week, eliminating dozens of jobs and the only thing around that resembles upscale shopping.
Opioid abuse is rampant, and 1 in 10 residents continue to live in public housing. The school system ranks among Florida’s worst. And the city’s pipes are so old that the water sometimes comes out the color of rust.
One by one, the institutions that Palatka officials had wanted to depend on were proving unreliable. Requests this year for financial assistance from Washington and Tallahassee have gone unanswered. A plea by the mayor to J.C. Penney’s corporate headquarters to reconsider shuttering the department store was shot down.
In some ways, the strategy of self-reliance is a return to the city’s past.
For decades, Palatka’s leaders and residents had embraced their bubble. Politicians rejected plans over the years to build highways that would have connected Palatka to Interstates 75 and 95, spurring growth. Back then, they were afraid growth might change things too much.
Sixty miles south of the sprawling city of Jacksonville, residents here have relished their lifestyle in a place Hill calls “the last bastion of old Florida” — shaggy trees, old houses with worn-out roofs, accents that were more like Montgomery, Ala., than Miami.
From the city’s founding, residents relied on the river to attract thousands of jobs. It once brought in a furniture manufacturing plant and a paper mill.
And, in a city whose population is close to evenly split between blacks and whites, Palatka residents take pride in their values. Whites here largely rejected the Ku Klux Klan when it was terrorizing black residents in other parts of north Florida, according to Vice Mayor Mary Lawson-Brown, 81, who is black. Lawson-Brown’s grandmother operated an integrated hospital; her grandfather ran the funeral home. No one could be born or buried in town without help from a black person.
“We were still a segregated city, especially on Sunday,” Lawson-Brown said. “But we didn’t have any racial riots. . . . Everyone wanted to preserve Palatka.”
Over the past two decades, however, the small city has been forced to contend with the realities of the global economy.
The furniture manufacturer closed in 2003, citing competition from Chinese imports, according to news reports at the time. About 650 people lost their jobs. The old factory building sits on River Street, unused and empty.
Automation and competition led to jobs at the paper mill, which is owned by Georgia-Pacific, being slashed by a third, to 850, over the past 12 years, according to public affairs manager Terry Hadaway.
By 2013, local leaders were horrified to learn that an expert hired by the Florida League of Cities had found that Palatka was the state’s only “dying city.”
The designation was based on pure statistics — more deaths than births, more people moving out than moving in. But it stung.
For Hill, the label served as an inspiration to make the leap into politics. In 2014, he ran for mayor with the slogan “Helping Our Palatka Evolve,” and persuaded one of his friends to run for the city commission. They won overwhelmingly, and Hill became the second black mayor in Palatka’s history.
By 2016, the five-person city commission was all black. Four commissioners were younger than 50.
“The city needed fresh ideas,” said Ed Killebrew, a white fifth-generation Palatkan. “And they were all from here, so they understood what we needed.”
When it came to the presidential election, Killebrew, like many others in this traditionally Democratic city, made a similar calculation.
“There was only one candidate who I felt knew what we needed,” Killebrew said. “That was Trump.”
And what does Palatka need?
“Help,” he said.
To understand the city’s troubles, Killebrew suggested, take a stroll through the Palatka Mall. Foot traffic was reduced by online retail, and other stores left for bigger cities throughout the country.
When Killebrew was growing up, he remembered going with his family to shop for Boy Scout uniforms downtown and lining up along the main street for the annual Christmas parade.
Then came the mall in 1981, taking all the major businesses within its enclosed peach-colored walls. Its anchor was the J.C. Penney, which had put its first Florida store in Palatka in 1928 and employed a generation of workers, mostly women, who generally did not seek to work in the sulfurous-smelling mill.
For years, the new mall was filled with people, and it bustled with commerce.
Today, there are almost no people and hardly any commerce. The mall sits as an empty, dimly lit shell where lizards race up and down with abandon. The parking lot in front of the old J.C. Penney is empty.
Hill had tried to make the case for J.C. Penney to stay.
In April, he wrote to the company’s chief executive in Plano, Tex., to explain how much his city depended on the department store. He noted Palatka’s low rate of car ownership and said many residents could not easily get to the nearest store, 30 miles away in St. Augustine. There is a local bus service that caters to seniors.
“We have lost too many major retail chain stores,” Hill wrote.
The company’s senior counsel, Arnold Grothues, responded five days later. He was not convinced.
“We are sensitive to the fact that this is a blow to our associates in those stores and to the communities they have served,” Grothues wrote, according to a copy of the letter provided by the city. “But I must stress that the decision is final.”
A J.C. Penney spokesman declined to comment.
At the mall one recent afternoon, Jaquese Smith, 18, sat on a bench in front of a closed jewelry shop. He had graduated from Palatka High with a 3.2 grade-point average but could only find a job working for Wendy’s. He quit after a manager asked him to shave his goatee, an infringement he felt was not worth the $8 an hour.
So Smith had come to the mall to visit one of the only storefronts with a tenant — the Army recruitment office.
“The military is probably the best place for me to get some opportunities and to earn some benefits,” he said.
“This place is kind of hollow,” he added. “Everything’s closing. Kmart gone, J.C. Penney’s gone. I’m just saying, you kind of wonder what’s next.”
City officials have the same question. The closures of retail stores not only mean a loss of jobs but also a decline in sales tax revenue that can be used to address the city’s many needs.
Palatka’s cracked and rusty water pipes, some of which haven’t been replaced since 1886, seemed to be exactly the type of problem both parties in Washington wanted to address.
But Palatka has had a tough time finding an ally, according to City Manager Terry Suggs.
The city’s population made it slightly too big, by about 500 people, to be eligible for federal grants and loans to assist rural communities with waste-management problems, Suggs said.
Suggs said he sent emails, made phone calls and visited with lawmakers in the hope of securing waivers so Palatka might qualify for assistance. But no decision has been made.
“We need folks in Washington to get their act together!” Suggs said.
Among those to hear from Suggs was Rep. Ted Yoho, the Republican congressman whose district includes Palatka. Yoho counseled patience.
“The Trump administration is just getting started,” he said. “It has taken a while for nominees to get approved, so it will just take some time.”
The city also appealed to the state for $1.5 million to help with water treatment during the most recent legislative session in the spring.
State Rep. Bobby Payne (R), who represents Palatka, said he couldn’t even get the bill out of committee. Larger communities tend to have more clout in the budget process. “We’ll keep trying,” Payne said.
The city’s lobbyist in Tallahassee, Yolanda Cash Jackson, said Palatka will always have disadvantages.
“They don’t have a giant tax base, and they are Democrats in a Republican state,” Jackson said. “So it’s easy for their problems to get lost. And they do.”
On a recent evening, residents flocked to Beulah Baptist Church, ready for a revival. The preacher commanded the worshipers to be hopeful even in the presence of hardship.
“Every time I step forward, it feels like I’m taking two steps back,” he said. “But after all I’ve been through, I ain’t gonna let nothing, or nobody, take my joy! Grab it! Get your joy back!”
Applauding him was Isaac Brinson, 44, whose smile displayed his teeth capped with gold grills with dollar signs on them.
Brinson, who as a felon lost his voting rights, said he would not have supported Trump had he been allowed to cast a ballot. But he said he appreciated Trump’s ability to hustle. He was a hustler, too.
Brinson said he had planned on using the money he earned from selling drugs to help start a day-care center. Then he was arrested. When he returned from prison, he opened his own business because he couldn’t get a job.
“I took a bucket, some detergent and one of those sticks with a large brush and started my own carwash,” Brinson said. “Now, I don’t even wash cars. I have two people working for me each day. That’s what we need to do here.”
Hill figured the city would need that kind of moxie, just on a larger scale. Everyone had to hustle. When Suggs heard that the owner of Bass Pro Shops was coming to town for a bass tournament this year, he and the mayor traveled to the private airport to try to persuade him to build a store in Palatka.
There have been a few good signs. The paper mill announced in June that it was adding a new processor to the factory, bringing 80 more jobs to the community.
Georgia-Pacific was also working with the local school board to train high school students to prepare them for the manufacturing jobs of today.
“We have confidence that Palatka and the surrounding area can support the kind of skilled employees we need now, but more importantly, in the future,” said Karen Cole, a company spokeswoman.
She added, “You can’t underestimate the value of a positive, long-term relationship with a community, which we very much have in Palatka.”
A 10-minute drive from the mill, a local accountant and his wife had bought space downtown to start Uncork and Unwind, with $7 craft beer and the most expensive wine in town. Sitting on a stool there one evening was Killebrew drinking a Raging Blonde with real estate agent Robbi Correa and the owner.
“If we just improved our education system, we can have more jobs,” said the owner, David Griffith, who was tending the bar.
“But we need good jobs,” Killebrew said. “This way people can stay.”
They were happy that there were more jobs coming to the mill but feared how long it would be until, once again, technology rendered them irrelevant.
Correa, a retired teacher from Connecticut, cast her hopes on tourism. If more people saw the river, she said, they would choose to retire here, as she did.
Their conversation took place on the same afternoon Hill and the visiting environmental enthusiasts had to evacuate the boat. After climbing out, the group dined in a local welcome center on food from the Golden Corral and discussed how building hiking and biking trails had improved other small towns in Florida.
From the windows, they could see the sky clearing in shades of blue and pink.
Carr, who led the group off the boat, looked again to the St. Johns’s flowing waters.
They walked out of the center and headed back to the docks. As the last speckles of the day’s sun sparkled on the river, they climbed aboard the Pride of Palatka and trailed away. After the rain, the conditions seemed just right.