STORIES BY BRANDON LUDWIG

The Rebirth of The Clay Theatre

Published: Nov. 15, 2020

GREEN COVE SPRINGS, FL. – In recent years, several historic theatres in the Jacksonville area have undergone renovations to bring in business and attract new customers.

The newest addition to that list is Green Cove Springs’ iconic Clay Theatre. The historic theatre, which lies at the heart of the city, is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Clay County.

The exterior of the newly renovated Clay Theatre. Photo by Brandon Ludwig.

After opening in 1937, the theatre was a mainstay for locals in the area. It was a popular spot to catch an evening movie for tourists who stayed at the town’s hotels on the St. Johns River or for the many military families who lived by the town’s Naval base.

The theatre was so popular in fact that another theatre, which was known as The Cove Theatre, opened in the lot next door for a time.

However, as time passed, the theatre began to struggle. Florida’s tourism industry shifted south, and the naval base in the area closed. The theatre’s struggles began in the early 2000s, and it changed ownership multiple times.

As larger theatres opened up in the growing communities of Orange Park and Fleming Island to the north, this proved to be the final blow. The Clay Theatre closed permanently in 2014.

In 2017, looking for a fresh start for the venue, Daniel and Andrea Vallencourt purchased the facility with the intent of turning it into a dine-in theatre, but they determined early on that the business plan would likely struggle.

“With the First Coast Expressway coming through just south of the city in a few years, we know that Green Cove Springs is going to undergo rapid growth, but we just didn’t feel that it was ready yet for something like a dine-in theatre,” said owner Andrea Vallencourt.

Instead, the couple pursued turning the project into an event facility. While the original theater’s interior was gutted, the exterior was largely kept the same to maintain the building’s historic character.

The theatre reopened after the extensive renovations in April 2019. It now boasts an Art-Deco styled Event Hall, a bridal suite, a groomsman suite and a courtyard for outdoor events.

The new event hall inside of the Clay Theatre. Photo by Brandon Ludwig.

Since its reopening, the venue has hosted hundreds of weddings, business events, and even in the more recent months, frequent political campaign events.

“Having the theatre reopen as a place that attracts people from all over, that’s a huge benefit not just to us but to businesses nearby and the Green Cove community,” said Vallencourt. “When they come to visit for the event, they might stop by one of our local restaurants, they might go take a walkaround Spring Park; this really has brought a lot more attention to our small community, and we are proud to be a part of that.”

For more information about the Clay Theatre, you can visit their website at www.claytheatre.com.

Barks and Bills: The K9s United Story

Published: Oct. 21, 2020

Video

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – K-9 units are one of the most expensive parts of law-enforcement budgets. While these units are practical, the required equipment, training and dogs themselves can be pricey, causing many departments not to afford them. 

That’s where K-9s United comes in.

The nonprofit organization was founded in 2015 by Jacksonville local Debbie Johnson, following the death of St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office Police K-9 Barron.

K9s United Founder Debbie Johnson and the K9s United Logo. Photo by Brandon Ludwig. Logo Courtesy of K9s United.

Johnson had the opportunity to join a ride-along with the department, and she was inspired to create the organization and help meet the needs of these K-9 units.

K9s United helps K-9 units across the country by purchasing items that the agencies can’t always afford. 

Johnson says the agencies, “reach out to us with their most important needs, and we then go straight to vendors to negotiate a discount, delivering the equipment strictly to the K-9 unit.” 

The organization also paints 18×24 canvas portraits of each fallen K-9, giving them to their respective police departments. They began doing this after the passing of K-9 Barron. 

A K-9 Portrait from K9s United. Photo by Brandon Ludwig.

The organization was in the spotlight after Johnson pushed for Florida to strengthen the criminal penalties for the killing of a K-9. The punishment was a third degree felony with a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. 

State Senate Bill 96 (2019), which was sponsored by Senator Aaron Bean, made it a second-degree felony to “kill or cause great bodily harm to police, fire or search-and-rescue dogs or police horses.” 

This increased potential penalties to up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The bill was signed into law by Governor DeSantis in April 2019.

Johnson says that her next goal is to get a similar bill passed at the federal level. She confirmed that she previously met with members of the local congressional delegation, whom she said seemed behind the idea.

Similar laws are in place in just two states – Pennsylvania and Utah. Passing a similar bill at the national level would be much easier than individually going through the process of changing the legislation in each state, according to Johnson.

For more information about K9s United, you can visit their website at www.K9sUnited.org.