Confession time: I was never a big fan of Crystal River.
It always seemed rudderless — local government and citizens constantly belittling one another, council members sniping publicly, silly politics forcing regular turnover in the manager’s position.
(Inverness has experienced the same thing but differently. Over the decades, the Inverness turmoil is generally self-inflicted, meaning the government does it to itself. Outside of zoning cases, citizens rarely rise up against Inverness officials, though that may give council members the false impression they are widely supported when in reality they're probably just ignored.)
Crystal River, it seems, simply could not get along with itself to move forward.
Then Andy Houston came to town and it hasn’t been the same since.
Houston became the city’s first manager in years who wasn’t run out of town. Not only that, he brought a professional calm to the city that seemed to permeate through City Hall and into the community.
Remember that it was under Houston’s leadership that Crystal River acquired Three Sisters Springs, arguably the biggest environmental protection project this county has ever seen outside the Withlacoochee State Forest.
I was covering Crystal River for the Chronicle during that transition from spotty to solid city government, but I left the beat before the city really geared up.
Never a big fan of strategic plans (lots of words, little action), I was skeptical when the city said it would seek community input for a master plan that takes challenges head-on.
The city won me over on a weeknight when nearly 100 residents and city officials braved monsoon weather to gather at the Historic Crystal River Depot to review the final report. The only detail I recall is being in a room full of engaged, enthusiastic residents and city officials.
That’s not something I see every day and it sure got my attention.
When I retired from the Chronicle and settled into the Just Wright Citrus gig, I found myself exploring our communities. I spend a lot of time driving — and walking — through Crystal River, Inverness, Hernando, Floral City, Homosassa, etc., observing life as it takes place.
For all our griping about growth, the truth is our communities are in much better shape than they were even 10 years ago. Inverness has The Depot; Homosassa, a riverfront heritage park.
Crystal River has undergone a wholesale change. It is simply magnificent, a beautiful welcome to Citrus County, particularly from the north. Town Square, on the U.S. 19 corner with Citrus Avenue, is gorgeous — made even more so by the memory of what was there for decades (nothin’).
It’s a city that recognizes and embraces its challenges without alienating the public. (You’d be surprised how many local governments think they can solve problems without asking citizens their opinions first.) City Manager Ken Frink and the council members are smart, common-sense people. Smart enough to know they don’t have all the answers.
The city is overrun with tourists. Frink recently told the county commission it’s a 300-to-1 ratio of tourists to city residents. That’s a million tourists annually jamming Hunter Springs Park, stopping traffic to cross U.S. 19 and creating havoc on the waterways to the annoyance of locals.
My wife and I drove through Crystal River after church on Sunday and I was struck by the lack of traffic. Then I remembered Three Sisters Springs is closed for the summer and Crystal River gets to breathe a little.
(Not for long: Scallop season starts July 1.)
The city is celebrating its centennial and a good time will be had by all on Monday, July 3 for a daylong festival at Town Square and Kings Bay Park, followed by fireworks that night. Click here for more info.
The chamber of commerce had a ribbon cutting for the centennial Friday afternoon at city hall. It was excitement mixed with sadness; Councilman Pat Fitzpatrick died just two days earlier.
I arrived just before the ribbon was cut and raced out to the parking lot for my selfie. Afterwards, everyone headed to St. Johns Tavern and I left for another appointment.
If you haven’t done so recently, take a visit to our only city on the bay. For me, I park on Citrus Avenue and stroll about.
At 100 years young, Crystal River looks mighty fine.
Join the discussion on our Facebook page.
Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.