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Jacksonville, Florida from 1832 to 2014

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Jacksonville, Florida is a city of possibilities. Jacksonville, like many of its counterparts, it is a city of contrasts. Add to that the trio of southern gentility, habits, morality, and you have one great story to tell.

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In his New Year’s email blast to the city Mayor Alvin Brown touched the bullet points which are the rough spots in Jacksonville’s ascendancy to greatness: the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, the new “One Spark” crowd funding event, a redo on the Jacksonville Landing, Police and Fire Pension reform.

The cloud of southern gentility was broken, when 182 years after city fathers gained the city’s charter, South Carolina-born Alvin Brown was elected Mayor. Brown became the first African American elected to the top post, and one of the few democrats elected to anything significant in Florida over the previous 20 years.

Brown and his city leaders, consisting mostly of businessmen, continue to struggle with what the image of the city should be and exactly who they want to attract.

Downtown development, as it has been for decades, is the central driver of economic development in Jacksonville and despite the success of Jacksonville’s Beaches communities, the nationally televised college bowl games and the must-have annual Florida – Georgia game, Jacksonville leaders insist on seeking development offers for a “type” of downtown that is unclear.

Jacksonville has a habit of leaning to the politically conservative while lusting after the lucrative financial benefits of San Antonio’s downtown River Walk and New Orleans Bourbon Street. Both chose tourism over neighborhoods, business over community and it shows. The direction and the focus of these cities is clear.

Jacksonville’s direction is less so. Once the home of the southern giants in finance: Independent Life, Barnett Bank, Florida National, Jacksonville National (and even a black-owned bank for five years named Century National), the banking sector is now no more than node on the national financial hub that is based out of North Carolina.

While the once a year Jacksonville Jazz Festival is still a highlight of city’s entertainment year, private investment is still dwarfed by the public dollars it takes to stage the event. Without those a(public) dollars there would be no festival.

Well kept bank buildings dominate the downtown skyline. Religious institutions own or control a third of downtown city blocks. City, state and federal buildings occupy or own shares that equates to another third, leaving only a few dilapidated parcels which require tons of money to repair or replace. And with 17 of 19 City Council members elected from districts with neighborhoods outside of downtown, the clear cheerleaders of its expansion and a future financial infusion of public capital lands back on the desk of the Mayor, and the doorsteps of the downtown business owners.

(This is a continuing series of articles on Jacksonville, Florida. To make sure you don’t miss the series Subscribe today. Its’ free.)