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U.S. House Bill Would Make First Coast A National Heritage Area

U.S. Rep. John Rutherford speaks at a St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum event. He is the sponsor of  the Nation's Oldest Port National Heritage Area Act.
St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
U.S. Rep. John Rutherford speaks at a St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum event. He is the sponsor of the Nation's Oldest Port National Heritage Area Act.

A U.S. House bill could designate the First Coast a National Heritage Area (NHA), allowing the area to receive federal funding for historic conservation projects.


The Nation’s Oldest Port National Heritage Area Act (H.R. 2107) proposes the land and coastal area East of the St. Johns river from the Florida-Georgia line to south of Flagler Beach be designated as an NHA.


Credit St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum
St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum
A map of the proposed boundaries of the NHA proposed under The Nation's Oldest Port National Heritage Area Act.

  The designation would allow the area to receive support from the National Park Service and federal funding for historic preservation that can boost the local tourism economy while educating people about the area’s history, said Rep. John Rutherford R-Fla., the bill’s sponsor.


When an NHA is formed, an operating group is able to apply to federal grants for historic conservation projects. Those groups cannot regulate private owners to conserve their property, but can work with them to preserve a building, or place signage on their property commemorating the structure or location's historical significance.


Nationally, there are currently 55 designated NHA’s across 34 states. The NHA programs contribute $13 billion annually to the national economy and support 148,000 jobs, Rutherford said.


Each NHA usually receives between $400,000 and $750,000 a year in federal money, said Kathy Fleming, Executive Director of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. She said has been advocating for establishing First Coast as an NHA since 2007.


Every dollar spent on a NHA grant returns an estimated average of $5.50 to local economic activity, Fleming said, adding the process to designate sites as historic areas promotes jobs for  local contractors and tourism.


However, Fleming said her advocacy for forming the NHA is not just for economic purposes. The designation would help preserve First Coast landmarks and educate people on the area’s history, she said.


“Human activity gets shaped by geography,” she said. “When that happens in a unique landscape, like the sea, or the First Coast, then you have a really distinctive culture that has unique cultural, historic and recreational resources.”


With the funding, areas like the site of Fort Mose in St. Augustine, the first legally sanctioned free Black town in the present-day United States, could be further preserved and promoted, Fleming said. The shipwrecks of boats fleeing Charleston during the American Revolution could be uncovered and commemorated, she added.


Fleming and Rutherford both testified on behalf of the bill in front of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands on June 15. So far, the path for the passing of H.R. 2107 looks clear, Rutherford said. 


His bill co-sponsor is area Rep. Al Lawson. Rutherford is a Republican. Lawson is a Democrat.  Every municipality in the area that would be affected by the bill has submitted letters supporting the legislation, Rutherford said.


The bill’s next committee stop has not yet been announced, but Rutherford said he hopes to “get it across the finish line” this congressional session.


“I think it has a lot of bipartisan and bicameral support because of the rich cultural heritage that we have in that area to preserve,” he said.

Tristan Wood can be reached at or on Twitter at @TristanDWood.

Tristan is WJCT’s 2021 Summer Reporting Intern. He has previously worked as the City and County Commission reporter for the Independent Florida Alligator, Gainesville’s student-run newspaper, and Fresh Take Florida, a news service working in partnership with the Associated Press to cover the Florida Legislature and select political news stories across the state.