Crystal River shows how it's done
It’s Friday so let’s talk about Crystal River.
Crystal River is a Friday town even when it’s not Friday. I drove through Thursday and it had that Friday feel. Kids playing in the splash pad. Tourists strolling through Heritage Village. A line of cars backed up on Citrus Avenue waiting for the green at U.S. 19.
Crystal River has momentum and it shows. It’s a clean city. Wayfaring signs everywhere, directing visitors to Hunter Springs Park or any of the numerous shops, restaurants and kayak rentals within walking distance.
It has a strong government. No city elections this year! Infighting that was so prevalent at City Hall for years has long disappeared.
Simply: Crystal River is a Citrus County success story.
I knew this town when it was a nothing burger. As in, nothing happening. Nothing getting done. Nothing but a lot of traffic on U.S. 19 and years spent bickering about what to do about it. Which led to nothing but bad blood and finger-pointing.
Today, that tired old town is in the rear-view mirror, never to return.
What happened? How did Crystal River go from spinning its wheels in the low-tide mud to the vibrant city it is today?
Answer: Community, that’s what.
The way out of this malaise didn’t come from the government and it didn’t come through a citizen referendum. Rather, over time, citizens and city officials combined to drop egos, ignore pride and get down to real business in tackling the community’s issues.
It took me a while to notice it myself. The city wanted a community master plan so it hired a consultant to conduct a charette — fancy word meaning intensive corroborate effort. It held meetings and open houses where folks could offer their opinions in a variety of areas.
The process culminated one night in a final report issued to the community at the historic train depot on Crystal Street. I was assigned the story at the Chronicle but a cloudburst showed up just as I was about to leave, so I figured no one was coming out in that.
I texted my friend Meredith Linley, executive director of Crystal River Main Street, to see if the event was still on. She assured me it was.
I asked her how many people showed up. A half dozen, I figured.
Her reply: About 80.
Gotta be kidding me. Out the door I went and when I arrived, the rain had reduced to a torrential downpour. The depot was packed with drenched Crystal River residents and public officials, eagerly seeing the results of their charette. The result was a master plan for the community everyone buys into.
I realized these people weren’t kidding about embracing their community. I haven’t looked at Crystal River the same since that night.
— Town Square is a beautiful and welcoming addition to the city. The property on the corner of Citrus Avenue and U.S. 19 sat empty for decades with little interest for development. Though we all remember the funeral home crematory idea, right?
Instead of that debacle, Town Square hosts the city’s First Friday evening events and other community activities.
— This is a great downtown to walk. Plenty of parking. Crossing U.S. 19 at the Citrus Avenue crosswalk is a breeze. Small shops, restaurants, antique stores and the Riverwalk. So much to take in.
— Take your pick: Three Sisters Springs. Three Sisters Trail. Crystal River Refuge Visitor Center. Kings Bay Drive. Paradise Point. Hunter Springs Park. Kings Bay Park. Creative Playground.
Crystal River also has its challenges: tourist/resident conflict; Citrus Avenue traffic; aesthetics of S.R. 44 coming into town; Turkey Oak as a bypass.
The city and its residents acknowledge these challenges and, in fact, embrace them. They have learned that the best way to solve community obstacles is out in the open, bringing multiple minds together to seek out solutions without focusing on who takes the credit.
Look. I’m an Inverness dude, through and through. Since the day I stepped foot in the county seat, I haven’t wanted to leave.
Crystal River, though, you’re getting my attention. Very impressed.
Have a great weekend, friends.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 35 years.