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College Drive: From Doctors Inlet ‘sweatbox’ to mainstreet vibe

By Kylie Cordell For Clay Today
Posted 9/28/22

CLAY COUNTY – The most difficult paths often lead to the most beautiful places, and that’s certainly the case for College Drive.

The 2.5-mile thoroughfare connects two Clay County commercial …

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College Drive: From Doctors Inlet ‘sweatbox’ to mainstreet vibe


CLAY COUNTY – The most difficult paths often lead to the most beautiful places, and that’s certainly the case for College Drive.

The 2.5-mile thoroughfare connects two Clay County commercial arteries, Blanding Boulevard and County Road 220. However, College Drive is not just a route stuck between two major highways. It’s a destination in itself with a burgeoning arts scene, Broadway-type productions at the Thrasher-Horne Center, top-tier restaurants, and home to several nonprofit organizations, residential neighborhoods and commercial enterprises. Many would even say that College Drive is becoming Clay County’s intersection of arts and commerce, but less than 70 years ago, this area was known as the “sweatbox” of the south, the Doctor’s Inlet Road Prison.

The road prison was one of many like it in Florida. Prisoners, some serving sentences for violent crimes, were sent to live and work at these facilities and to clear the road that would one day become College Drive. To set the scene, let’s go back to 1953. Just imagine the bunk houses, a mess hall and a workhouse for laborers enclosed by a rickety and ineffective fence. In the distance, far beyond the workhouses, is a field of yellow laurel expanding on and on until the horizon turns into a gravel road. It’s nearly 100 degrees during the height of summer and the road shimmers from the heat.

On the road just outside the gates, gray-clad prisoners can be seen in the mornings loading up into trucks to be taken to the nearest roadside ditch in need of clearing. Water jugs and sack lunches complete the look. On the sidelines, a dozen or so guards with shotguns and cowboy hats watch the procession of inmates hoisting shovels, mowers, hoes, and scythes overhead. One by one, the chain gang are loaded onto the trucks, to the side of a highway or state road to clear brush, and ditches, pick up trash and pull weeds. The road is long and unforgiving, but they keep digging, paving the way for the many years ahead.

When the Doctors Inlet Road Prison was demolished in the 60s, it brought forth something unexpected. Just Imagine large slabs of concrete and rusted steel piled high in the yellow fields of the prison yard waiting to be bulldozed and transported to the county dump. And yet, even under the debris, yellow flowers spring forth between the pieces of scrap metal. Life persists, against all odds.

If you look closely at the emblem of the College Drive Initiative, you might recognize a yellow laurel opening towards the sky, the same yellow laurel which grew in abundance on the outer edges of the road prison. It is a reminder of the wildflowers from the prison fields, and the potential for growth even in the most unhospitable places. Needless to say, College Drive is a far cry from its days as a road prison. The aerial, black and white pictures from Clay County’s archives, something so bleak and desolate, are no longer recognizable.

Where prisoners once gathered to smoke cigarettes between long days on the road are now 20-something years olds playing corn hole in the Thrasher-Horne parking lot between classes at the St. Johns River State College. Students walk to and from the manicured campus, the long corridors leading to a courtyard with white columns. In the evening, husbands and wives walk arm and arm toward the entrance of the event center, taking their seats in front of the main stage.

“That’s what the College Drive Initiative is all about,” said Connie Thomas, former Mayor of Orange Park and a long-time community advocate. “Helping the community be the best it can be.” Thomas was one of the first to see College Drive’s potential to become a nucleus of community life in north-central Clay County. “Imagine a portion of College Drive with outdoor dining, green spaces, trees, creative illumination and sculpture, a space for the public to congregate. To have so many services in one area and to have those services accessible to the public, that’s our mission,” said Thomas. Not only will College drive become a destination for enjoyment and entertainment; it will be a locale for community needs.

“Many residents in Clay County depend on nonprofit and public agencies dedicated to serving community needs,” said Thomas. Consequently, the thoroughfare serves as a public health corridor. Disadvantaged persons struggling with needs for housing, food, and clothing find help on College Drive. Health care for military veterans and uninsured persons is available. Additional agencies assist people with more specific needs.

“We call it the Helping Highway,” said Thrasher-Horne Center executive, Bob Olson. “So many great organizations are involved.”

With the many non-profits beginning to anchor in this area and the ongoing need to enjoy a full evening around the ever-popular Thrasher-Horne Center, a unique opportunity was presented– to be proactive by gathering the thoughts of the College Drive community and begin initiating something that benefits its local citizens and Clay County at large. These opportunities, or Deliberative Dialogues, help guide future College Drive improvements.

“It’s the community that wants change, to see things improve,” said Thomas. “I come from a long public service history and have been in both seats, government and community. And now I’m looking from the community seat again and I can see that every one of them, the people that are drawn to what’s happening, are drawn to service. It’s not leadership. It’s people down.”

Olson agrees. “All relationships are built on trust. And the people are part of that process,” he said.

To date, more than 150 Clay County citizens, nonprofit organizations, Clay County staff, St. Johns River State College, Thrasher-Horne, and local business owners worked together to envision the future of College Drive.

“It’s way bigger than I ever thought. So many talented people are involved in this project. It’s really uplifting to see,” said Thomas. “Give it a few years and I think it will be something really special.”

And it doesn’t just stop at College Drive.

“The College Drive Initiative serves as a model on how to “do things right,” said Olson. “It’s a pilot for a lot of the work that’s already being done in the community.”

One such organization is The High Ridge Initiative, a part of Mission of the Dirt Road's efforts to encourage home maintenance and neighborhood revitalization in the Keystone area, as well as better access to healthcare, health and affordable foods, and a neighborhood-wide cleanup program.

“We’re using the College Drive model to host deliberative dialogue and open forms to bring strength, safety, and care back into the neighborhood,” said Carey Morford, founder of the Mission of the Dirt Road’s ministry and the High Ridge Initiative.

“We got the community involved in three clean-up days and hauled more than three tons of trash, large items, and tires. We also started a home repair program through the community founders of Northeast Florida. We already completed three renovations and have a fourth in progress.”

Morford hopes to increase community services by attending to the needs of the community and building people’s trust in the project. “The area has faced a lot of challenges,” said Morford. “When people face buriers regularly, it’s hard to believe that things can really change. There’s a lot of skepticism, but we’re trying to prove that things can change, and will. You just have to stay faithful and keep moving.”

Sometimes, a difficult road forces necessary change in the community. It invites new opportunities. New growth. New perspectives. You just have to keep moving until you get there.

If you want to support your community, follow The College Drive Initiative and High Ridge Initiative on Facebook.