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Jacksonville, Florida: Is there a return on Downtown Development?

Mayor Alvin 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.

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.
F. Matthews

For the last two decades Jacksonville Mayors and Civic Leaders have sought to resell Downtown development as a central driver of economic development in Jacksonville. 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.

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 “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 who show little interest in downtown development, the clear cheerleaders of its revitalization are the Mayor and downtown business owners.

What does Jacksonville want for downtown? Should it really be the hub? Hemming Plaza, once the “center” of downtown Jacksonville, sits in the shadow of one stop of a concrete monstrosity called the Skyway. The City Council reacting to the fears and disdain expressed daily by downtown workers has put a Committee into play to examine ways to make the plaza more amenable to those who want to take a quiet midday lunch there without viewing the homeless with their book bags, cigarettes and filthy smells. The checker and chess players can stay, they say, but the others must go. Enter Human Rights Activists who have successfully shamed the politicians into delaying any meaningful change to the plaza. No input from the Mayor’s office has been forthcoming.

The central issue for downtown Jacksonville seems to be: What can be done to keep it alive after 5? For that we turn once again to the nightlife. There are sparks of life on this front, but so far only one demographic is taking the bait. Adults under 35years of age have gravitated to clubs like the “Burro Bar” and “Da Real Ting” along with the “North Star Pizza Bar”. None of which can attract any family-friendly patronage. In short no spark for a vibrant, consistent nightlife after 5.

And if the downtown visitor is looking for an elegant meal there are three choices: “Juliette’s, housed in the Omni Hotel, the “Charthouse” on the south side of the St. Johns river at the Wyndham hotel, and “River City Brewing” also on the south side. The latter two locations give the visitor the option of either driving through downtown or skipping it altogether by taking the interstate or coming to downtown from the south.

After 5 for downtown depends on private investment with a foreseeable return. Can Mayor Brown and the members of the Downtown Investment Authority actually see a return on such investments in the foreseeable (5 years) future?