- 2013 - December - 16th -
James F. Bailey, Jr.

DIA needs to capture energy of community

From the publisher: James F. Bailey Jr.

As many people know, I've been working Downtown for almost four decades.

For much of the time, I've been advocating for making it a better place.

Not because I want more traffic, less parking and crowds of people.

I've always felt that Downtown — the hub of our wheel — is a lazy asset that if managed well could be a tremendous resource and revenue source.

I've seen the ebb and flow of interest in Downtown. Sometimes it's hot, other times it's been lukewarm, at best.

I've served on the Jacksonville Waterways Commission, the Downtown Design Review Board, Downtown Vision Inc. and the Downtown Action Committee for several administrations. Each had their own plans for what our Downtown should be.

But never in those 38 years have I seen so many people coming from so many directions, wanting to share their ideas about how best to turn our urban core into an exciting and vibrant place.

Investors are taking a hard look, developers are stepping forward and young business pioneers are opening bars and restaurants.

But, without a cohesive effort, it could get out of control and dampen our ability to succeed. Most recently:

• A meeting hosted by Toney Sleiman to get public input into what a new Jacksonville Landing should look like. The turnout was high and the discussion was lively.

• Steve Atkins continues to push forward to renovate the Laura Street Trio and the Barnett Bank Building.

• Meetings of the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) always draw a large crowd of engaged citizens.

• Plans are being discussed to offer city-owned and under-utilized properties for sale. Several of those sites are in Downtown, including the Shipyards, the old City Hall and the courthouse.

• Mark Farrell of Killashee Investments pitched the Police and Fire Pension Fund last week on partnering to build a 1,000-foot tower on the Shipyards property. The cost to build the tower is estimated in excess of $100 million and designed to spur as much as $1 billion in investment.

• Jaguars owner Shad Khan has expressed interest in the Shipyards, which he sees as the front door to the sports complex.

• The City has moved to foreclose on the historic Bostwick Building, something that could occur by mid-January, making the building eligible for sale and renovation.

• A group called Friends of Hemming Plaza responded to the Request for Proposal to operate and manage the park. Led by Wayne Wood and including Downtown Vision and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, the group is asking for $765,000 from the City for the first year of operation. (I'll discuss more on this later in the column.)

There is even more that could be added to the list.

All of this energy and engagement is good news for Downtown. But, I worry it is getting out of control and largely going uncoordinated. It's as if each group is operating in a vacuum, creating energy and excitement without the efficiency of cooperation.

I would be the last person to discourage all of the interest. The more, the better.

But, at what point do we say all of the discussion can become repetitive and the ideas generated will grow stale if our efforts aren't coordinated and focused?

That's where the DIA (of which I am a member) should come in as a full board.

The authority was created by Mayor Alvin Brown for good reasons. One of those was for the authority to be the funnel through which all things to do with Downtown should flow.

Another is so the authority can transcend politics and administrations, which can change every four to eight years. A strong and stable DIA would give investors confidence that a consistent focus remains on their projects and on Downtown.

They will invest in Downtown if they know the commitment is there beyond the time an administration is in office.

All of these efforts are great but coordinating them requires leadership.

But that's something the DIA needs to do a better job at.

If the lack of leadership continues, I fear that a year from now we will still be spinning our wheels with well-intended people still holding disconnected meetings without action or results.

Eventually, all of this great interest and engagement we have now in Downtown will disappear because disillusionment or a low return with the process will move in and take over.

Hemming Plaza plan needs strong review

Now, let's address that proposal submitted by Friends of Hemming Plaza.

I think it is absolutely tremendous that Wood has been able to forge a diverse partnership to recover and reinvigorate the plaza. It's exactly what's needed.

However, the requirement that the city fund $765,000 of a $915,000 budget to hire a nine-person staff for park management and operation needs a lot of vetting by the mayor, City Council and DIA.

When the Friends group was originally formed, it was for people willing to contribute to make the plaza successful, not ask for $765,000 of taxpayer money.

Five of those positions will be housed at Downtown Vision Inc.

The proposal calls for both a director and an operations manager. I wonder why a director and operations manager could not be the same person for a space the size of the plaza?

I also question why you need a social services outreach specialist at $22.32 an hour?

Nine people is too many to be adding to the budget, especially when you know that the entire special events staff for the city has only16 people.

In fact, if that money was spent on more events and more people were brought Downtown, Hemming would be a beneficiary of the influx.

Council President Bill Gulliford got it right when he said, "It may be a champagne budget that we need to drop back to a beer budget."

Gulliford and his gas tax

Speaking of Gulliford, I want to give him a pat on the back for filing legislation, as he promised, to extend the 6-cent local option gas tax for another 20 years.

The tax, which originated in the mid-'80s', is set to expire in 2016. Mayor Brown has made it clear he is opposed to extending the tax.

Getting a vote from the council now is important because the Jacksonville Transportation Authority needs to know if it will have this critical source of revenue to bond out future road projects and improvements.

Under Gulliford's proposal, 5 cents would stay with the JTA, and a penny would remain with the city to be used for street maintenance and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. He seems determined to move the legislation through in early 2014.

Last summer, Gulliford demonstrated strong leadership in guiding the city's budget with a tax increase through the council. He's had other successes since.

It will be interesting to see if his clout continues with the gas tax, especially given the rumors that Gulliford has not ruled out running against Brown for mayor in 2015.


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