- 2010 - November - 10th -

Flight from Downtown ‘frankly scary’, Real estate leaders call for support

by Karen Brune Mathis
Managing Editor

It wasn’t a question of whether to revitalize Downtown. It was a question of how followed by answers of why.

Foley & Lardner attorney Bob Rhodes led a panel discussion at the Urban Land Institute North Florida meeting last week and his final question was how to revitalize Downtown.

“We have to believe Downtown is important. We have to build a case,” said panelist Ed Burr, president and CEO of GreenePointe Holdings LLC and a former chair of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Burr, who is working with local business leaders to create a Downtown advocacy plan, said there were two critical elements to revitalize Downtown.

The first was building the case. The second was government leadership.

“We have to get a governance that advocates for Downtown,” he said. “We never have a continuity. We have to have a government that always advocates for Downtown.”

Downtown has been losing businesses and employees and the recession halted a stream of capital investments from developers. Residential development was stalled in the recession as well.

As a result, advocates, including influential business leaders, are calling for a focus and trying to develop plans toward revitalizing Downtown.

The other two panelists also shared opinions.

Bruce Johnson, executive vice president and CFO of Downtown-based Regency Centers, said he has been in Jacksonville since 1979 and has “been a huge proponent” of Downtown.

“The flight out of Downtown is frankly scary,” said Johnson. “It’s going to take some sincere commitment.”

Johnson also agreed with Burr. “We have to have the political leadership.”

Steve Crosby, president of CSX Realty Property, said he doesn’t think the community agrees with Downtown development, but, he said, “getting Downtown right is critical.”

“We have to have a Downtown (which is) critical to creating a place to call ‘Jacksonville.’ We all get so comfortable in the communities we live,” said Crosby.

He said that when a European investor, for example, visits the area, “they are going to judge us by the airport and Downtown.”

“We have to fix Downtown and make it relevant,” he said.

CSX is based along the Downtown riverfront.

About 150 real estate professionals attended the Thursday event, “Trends in Real Estate 2011,” at the Crowne Plaza on the Downtown Southbank.

Charles DiRocco, director of research at Pricewaterhouse

Coopers, presented a report about real estate trends nationwide, including Jacksonville, which faces challenges.

Rhodes and the panelists also discussed the economy, product changes and foreclosure problems and took questions from the audience.

Among their comments:

• The recession “is as deep as it can be,” said Burr, who focuses on residential community development. Burr expects some improvements by the end of 2011 or early 2012.

• However, Burr said that while “we keep waiting on the recovery,” that the economy is “in stabilization.” “Stabilization occurs before recovery,” he said.

• Burr suggested that the real estate professionals, considered survivors by virtue of their attendance, ask themselves a question every day. “What can we do to make business better today?”

• Crosby, who focuses on industrial development, said that in more than 30 years, he had never seen conditions worse “than they are right now.” “No one’s doing well, but people are still doing,” he said.

• Crosby advocated for attention to the port of Jacksonville and the area’s distribution system. “Prepare for growth,” he said. When ship traffic increases, “goods will need a place to be stored,” meaning distribution centers.

• Crosby said the port, highways and buildings show Jacksonville’s strength. “We have to remember why Jacksonville grew and prospered, and none of those things went away,” he said. “We have to rally around the things we do well.”

• Crosby also said that distribution buildings can become obsolete quickly now, more so than before. “You’ll see ... people building what they want, where they want,” he said.

• Johnson, who focuses on retail development, said that the housing market needs to be stabilized before a recovery takes hold. He said it would be “three years before we see more normal conditions.”

“All three of us said this is the worst recession we’ve been in,” said Johnson.



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