- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Here, in the nation’s oldest city, history has become a burden. It’s not that locals don’t appreciate their hometown’s long, colorful past. To the contrary, many are fiercely proud that their city, founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1565, is the oldest, continuously occupied settlement of European origin in North America.

This city possesses one of the oldest and largest collections of historical structures in the country — no fewer than 1,200 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places — and a large number of Colonial-era buildings that would rival those of Williamsburg.

“Oldest, oldest, oldest, first, first, first — there are an awfully lot of oldests and a lot of firsts in St. Augustine,” says Susan R. Parker, a historian with the Florida Division of Historical Resources. “Wherever you step, history is under your feet.”

Which, as it happens, is precisely the rub: This place has so much history, so many surviving structures of historical significance, not to mention undiscovered buried artifacts, that analysts say it could take tens of millions of dollars for the city to acquire and preserve them all.

Raising that kind of bullion might be doable — in New York City, say, or Chicago. But this is St. Augustine, population 14,000, where money for preservation must come from a relatively meager property-tax base.

It certainly doesn’t help that 38 percent of all land in St. Augustine is off the tax rolls.

The Old City, for example, a 22-block district on the edge of Matanzas Bay, is a random miscellany of tax-exempt institutions, which include a cathedral, four churches, a Franciscan monastery, a convent, the 1808 City Gate, Flagler College, the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, the headquarters for the Florida National Guard and a national cemetery. Here, too, is the country’s oldest fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, begun in 1672.

Florida used to ante up millions of dollars each year to preserve St. Augustine’s treasures, but now that the state has a huge hole in its budget, that’s history, too. On average, one historic structure is demolished each month in St. Augustine.

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