Struggling ‘Potato Capital’ may soon vote out of existence
HASTINGS, Fla. (AP) — The old town hall and community center, a once-vital building on a once-vital Main Street, dominates the downtown of this old potato- and cabbage-farming town. It’s two stories high and sprawling, and if you squint deeply you can imagine it in its heyday, many decades ago.
Chris Stanton remembers going to the fancy Potato Balls that were held there. He remembers the basketball court he played on inside, and the library too, which his grandmother helped found. When he was president of the Rotary Club, they held meetings in the building.
Now though it’s an empty shell with no doors and not much of a roof, and weeds grow where people once did business, socialized and checked out books. Flooding and time and neglect killed it, and a chain-link fence keeps out the curious.
It’s right across from a vacant lot where about a quarter of the downtown, including a grocery store, burned down, a big disaster for the so-called Potato Capital of Florida, which is just 1.66 square miles in size. That fire was in 1985, the same year the school board closed the town’s high school, another huge setback.
The abandoned old town hall seems an apt symbol for the town, population 600 or so, a hardscrabble place in the southwest corner of St. Johns County, one of the richest counties in the state.
Hastings was founded in 1890 when Florida railroad and hotel king Henry Flagler sent a relative, Thomas Horace Hastings, inland to grow vegetables for his Flagler’s resorts. It was incorporated as a town 19 years later.
In Hastings’ heyday, potatoes and cabbages flooded in from surrounding farms to be processed, packed and shipped by rail or truck across the country. Businesses lined busy Main Street. The Dixie Highway, the main north-south route from Michigan to Miami, came through town in 1916, paved with bricks and busy with vacationers.
Those days are gone.
By the railroad track at the town limits is an old potato-packing plant that once employed hundreds of people. It’s abandoned now.
A trip to the supermarket or drugstore means heading down Florida 207 through flat farm land to Palatka or St. Augustine; schoolchildren all have to leave the town limits for class.
It’s gotten to this point: In November, Hastings voters will decide if the town government should dissolve itself. Hastings would still be a mailing address but, as a town, it would no longer exist.
Instead, it would become an unincorporated part of St. Johns County, which would then take over management of the area early next year.
Stanton, 62, pushed to get dissolution on the ballot, saying his hometown is in such financial straits — population is small, tax revenues and property values have declined, businesses have moved out or failed — that there are no other options.
But it’s not about giving up, he said.
“This is not about getting rid of Hastings,” he said. “I keep telling people that, to me, this is a rebirth. It’ll still have its identity, it’ll still have its history. Nobody is taking that away.”
A combination of factors led to the town’s plight.
One big one: Over the years, the nature of agriculture changed. The potato industry grew more competitive, and mechanization replaced many of the jobs once done by people. Farms needed to be bigger to make the business worthwhile, pushing small farmers out.
“They had 40 acres here, 20 acres here, 10 acres there. Now it’s all 500 acres,” said Lawrence Masters, 69, whose family goes back many generations in Hastings.
His father, also named Lawrence, worked for Florida Planters, one of several co-ops that used to be in the area to help farmers band together for better rates. His son, Lawrence IV, now helps run the family farm, which switched years ago from potatoes to sod, as some other Hastings farmers have done.
Masters was one of 26 people in the 1965 class of Hastings High School, and says just about every one of them has left town. He too: He now lives in St. Augustine.
So what’s going to happen to his hometown in the future? “Nothing,” he said. “Ain’t had nothing happen in 100 years.”
It has to look at other options, Masters figures. “There’s just nothing viable there. It’s a couple of stores, and they could do just as good under the county rules as the city rules.”
Earlier this month town commissioners decided to put dissolution on the Nov. 7 ballot, giving the town’s registered voters — a recent count put that number at 440 — the chance to decide Hastings’ fate.
Mayor Tom Ward, 57, has tried to not take a position on the matter; he can see some advantages, but says his heart wants Hastings to remain a town of its own. “I’m still torn in different directions,” he said.
A few weeks ago, he put the odds of passage at 50-50. But after county commissioners on Sept. 5 gave more details, he thinks the dissolution side has a good chance winning. Among the details: Water rates would go down and 13 town employees would be offered positions in the county.
“That’ll satisfy a lot of people for sure,” Ward said.
Resident Kenneth McClain, 55, however, said some have been skeptical about the dissolution process because many people with an interest in the town’s fate have no voice in it.
Decades ago the town limits were tightly drawn to make Hastings largely white. Many predominantly black neighborhoods have Hastings mailing addresses but lie just outside its boundaries, so residents can’t vote in local elections, though they’re an integral part of the town’s life.
“They use the gas station, the Dollar Store, the Subway, they actually support it,” McClain said. “That gerrymandering that was done back then has kept the town and the county separated for years.”
He says more information is needed before a vote is taken.
“Nobody has a clear answer as to why. They’re saying we can’t afford this, we can’t afford that,” he said. “I’m trying to wrap my head around it: How can one of the richest counties in the state of Florida allow a town to dissolve?”
‘Closer and closer’
Betty Smith moved to Hastings in 1995 and used to love the stories the women at the senior center, where she volunteered, told about the town they knew when they were young.
“People don’t understand what this town was,” she said. “It was the most gorgeous town in the whole world. It was so nice.”
She’s 87 now, and said she feels as if the town is tired and has basically given up. So consider Smith a yes vote for dissolution. “Because of the situation now, I would appreciate St. Johns taking over,” she said.
Hastings still has a lot going for it, said Stanton, the dissolution advocate, a third-generation resident. His grandfather started a Ford dealership there in 1924. Stanton went into the family business, opened a dealership in Georgia and went on to work for Ford, in America and overseas.
Taking early retirement, he moved back to Hastings; it’s home, and family is still there.
Ward, the mayor, moved to Hastings in the early 1990s, drawn by a Victorian-era house he and his wife, Diane, could buy for far less than in his hometown of St. Augustine.
When we got to town, he said, there hadn’t been a new house built in 25 years. But while driving around, he points out a couple of modest new subdivisions that have cropped up in recent years.
Change is going to come to Hastings, Ward said, no matter if the town votes itself out of existence or not.
After all, he said, the St. Johns River and all it offers is a short distance away. The beach isn’t far, and St. Augustine is an easy drive. Residents might have to travel to get to a school, but they’re still part of the vaunted St. Johns County school system.
Much of the county’s growth has taken place to the east, closer to the ocean, and to the north, closer to Jacksonville. But it seems inevitable that development will eventually push out to the flat, vast farmlands near Hastings.
“It’s getting closer and closer,” Ward said. “People have said that 100 times. ‘Oh, the World Golf Village is going to take over.’ And every time I venture out — we’ve got a bike we love to ride, ride through the country — it’s getting closer and closer, all the time.”
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com