Keystone's past, present, future

Keystone Heights is a city of about 1,385 residents located east of Melrose at state roads 100 and 21. The city’s downtown area is shown.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The sea change here has hit Mallard's Dollarama.
When customers offer checks or credit cards at the counter of Debbie Etheridge's Lawrence Boulevard discount store, she has started to request IDs.
"Five or six years ago, we didn't ask for ID," said Etheridge, 42, who moved to Keystone Heights 20 years ago and took over the store eight years ago, when her parents retired. "You knew everyone who walked in the door, so you didn't have to worry about credit card fraud or bad checks. Keystone was a little behind the times, I guess, and the world has caught up to it. We're starting to live in the now."
The population of Clay County, where most of Keystone Heights is located, has been ballooning for years. Planners say the growth is starting to trickle down to Keystone Heights, bringing new businesses and new residents to the city and spurring changes to its landscape and its population.
Signs of the old Keystone Heights - referred to simply as Keystone by many residents - abound. The S&G Food Mart still sells pickled pigs' feet from a jar, and most people greet each other by name when they pass each other on the street.
Signs of the new Keystone are just as abundant. In an aging strip mall on State Road 21, a sign announces the opening of a gourmet coffee shop. Dean's Drug, a staple of the city's downtown business district, now shares its business with two chain drugstores on Lawrence Boulevard.
And, in what longtime residents say is the most undeniable symbol of change, the city just got a new stop light on State Road 100.
"We're not a one-traffic-light town anymore," Etheridge said. "Now, we have two."
A commuting option Keystone Heights, a city of about 1,385 residents located east of Melrose at state roads 100 and 21, has long been a rural outpost for commuters to Gainesville and Jacksonville, and a weekend lake getaway for families from both those cities.
In the past several years, the city has seen many of those residents make their weekend cottages into permanent homes, thanks in part to an initiative to replenish Keystone's lakes, said Dean Weaver, vice president of Watson Realty in Keystone Heights. The lake levels hit record lows last year, but increased rainfall and replenishment projects from Clay County and private companies have caused them to rise again.
The city also has seen an influx of retirees and commuters, Weaver said.
As a result, he said, property prices have skyrocketed.
In January 2005, Weaver sold a 1.5-acre lot in the Big Tree subdivision for $10,000. In January 2006, he said, he sold a similar lot for $42,000.
Thad Crowe, director of planning for Clay County, attributed part of that increase to Jacksonville's southward expansion, which he said is bringing both jobs and services closer to Keystone. The city is about 25 miles from Gainesville, 35 miles from Orange Park and 55 miles from downtown Jacksonville.
"I think that in the past, there were issues with accessibility for people who worked in Jacksonville or Gainesville," Crowe said. "Although it was the midpoint between the two, it was still seen as a little remote, and that led to some pretty slow growth. But I think as the Jacksonville area expands, it's creating a whole new ring of suburbs in the outer counties, including Clay, and I think people are starting to see it as a viable commuting option."
Etheridge said she's noticed the trend. "It's really become a bedroom community," Etheridge said. "At least one part of every family seems to travel to Orange Park or Jacksonville or Gainesville for work. You either commute yourself, or you're married to someone who does."
Bald Eagle Bait and Tackle on State Road 21 has become an informal coffee shop for many of those commuters.
Store owner Joey Tyson, 48, said most mornings, a dozen or more men sit in a ring of worn armchairs and barstools in the middle of the shop to drink black coffee and chat before starting their drives.
Tyson moved to Keystone from Jacksonville full time four years ago, after years of spending weekends on the lake. He understands why his customers are willing to drive so far.
"We still have parades here," Tyson said. "We still have our own fireworks on July Fourth. We have craft shows, and kids go trick-or-treating downtown on Halloween. It's like something out of 'Steel Magnolias.'
"Some people have a long drive to work," Tyson said. "But it's always a short drive home."
Forecast for growth Five years ago, Crowe said, the city didn't even have a shopping center.
Now, a strip mall on State Road 100 boasts a Hitchcock's grocery store, a movie rental store, a Pizza Hut, a hair salon and an auto center, in addition to other shops.
Twenty years ago, when Weaver of Watson Realty was first transferred to Keystone from Gainesville, he remembers only one restaurant in the city - and that one wasn't even open for dinner.
"My first week, I asked someone in the office, 'Where would you recommend I go for lunch?' She said, 'Home,' " Weaver said. "We didn't have enough population to support a Burger King, and without sewer service, the restaurants would have to provide their own service with septic tanks. The numbers just didn't work."
Though the closest Burger King is still in Starke, Keystone residents can now choose between Hardee's, Wendy's and McDonald's, as well as several sit-down restaurants.
And with the city's long-sought central sewer system just weeks from being online, Weaver and city officials said they expect even more economic development in the near future.
"Because of the new sewer system, we know we're going to be looking at a lot more growth," said Mayor Lyndel Hale. "I think we'll see a lot more companies coming once that's online."
Downtown, business owners are tweaking their business strategies to adjust to new chain stores like Walgreens and CVS.
Sandy Pardee, 46, took over Flower Petals, a floral and gift shop on Lawrence Boulevard, last March.
She's trying to make the store a bastion for local artists, including the man who makes jewelry from sea glass, the woman who carves switchplates from wood and the people who grow the kind of exotic houseplants Pardee promises you won't find at the new Wal-Mart Supercenter in Starke.
Pardee is from New York. She moved to Keystone six years ago for the peaceful atmosphere, and for the small-town character she worries the new growth could threaten.
"This area is definitely growing," Pardee said. "It's practically become a suburb of Orange Park and Gainesville. You have to accept reality: It's going to grow. I just really hope it can keep its community feeling in the process of that growth."
That, she said, is the whole point of her store.
"The craftsmen here are unique, special people, and they're part of what makes Keystone Keystone," Pardee said. "That's why I want to have their handmade things in here. Keystone is really a special kind of place. I just want the store to reflect that."
Itching for a change For every adult who's hoping Keystone stays quiet and peaceful, there's a teenager who's yearning for activity and excitement.
Hale admits that this is one of the city's downfalls, and said it will be one of the city's stoutest challenges as it continues to grow.
Weaver said he understands why kids are itching for a change.
"When I moved here in 1985, I thought the world had ended," Weaver said. "For young people, there's not much to do unless you really like water sports. But then you come back for vacations when you're 25 and 30. By the time you're 40, you respect the fact that you can walk outside and see the stars, and that you can leave home without locking the door, and you sort of wish you lived here again."
Donna Henderson knows what Weaver is talking about.
As a senior at Keystone Heights High School, she couldn't wait to leave home. She went to school in Mississippi and New Orleans, and lived in various places across the country with her husband.
They had settled in Colorado when both Henderson and her husband got a crazy thought: We should move back to Florida.
So 30 years after she left, Henderson came back.
Now, she sees what her parents saw in the community. And her kids feel what Henderson felt years ago.
"My son had spent time in Keystone with his grandparents, and he said, 'Well, if you're going to move to Florida, you should at least move to Gainesville, because that's kind of a town,' " Henderson said.
At first, Henderson said, she had her doubts, too.
She's an acupuncturist, and wondered if Keystone, which residents say is home to roughly three dozen Christian churches, was ready for ancient Chinese medicine.
Some people haven't changed, she said. "But mostly, it's been enlightening," Henderson said. "There have been people who I never thought would change at all who come here. One of my clients said, 'Did I teach you Sunday school?' That sort of tickled me. I think the people who are willing to try new things are really brave."
The key to growth If you ask the mayor, Keystone's future lies in more growth through annexation.
"I think our leaders in the past have been a little slow on that," Hale said. "If you look at Newberry and some of the other cities that have grown well, they've been very proactive about annexations. Our city limits are very small. It would really help a lot in managing future growth and in providing services to people."
If you ask the business owners on Lawrence Boulevard, most will say Keystone's future lies in protecting its past - a past Etheridge said is still very much alive at Mallard's.
On a recent afternoon, Ruth Johnson, 76, came in to shop. Johnson, who has lived in the city for nearly 40 years, is one of the customers Etheridge can still greet by name.
The two met when Johnson fell outside the store one day, skinning her wrist badly. Etheridge helped her up and offered her a ride home.
"She felt safe enough to get in my car and let me take her home," Etheridge said. "That's a small town."
Johnson nodded. "Some people say, 'I wish it was like it was way back when,' " Johnson said. "Well, I don't. A lot of the changes have been for the better. And when it comes down to it, it hasn't changed that much at all."
Amy Reinink can be reached at 374-5088 or reinina@

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