The Downtown Investment Authority is betting the private sector will match the $750,000 it plans to offer for construction upgrades to restaurants, retail, arts and entertainment, information technology and incubators on Jacksonville's Northbank.
"I think the program will be a good test pilot for us, to see how the funds might actually be used," authority CEO Aundra Wallace said at a board meeting last week.
Under the guidelines, applicants may qualify for up to $20 per square foot of occupied space or a not-to-exceed amount of $50,000 matched dollar-for-dollar on planned renovations.
In designing that target, the DIA examined renovation estimates for several Downtown buildings and found most fell into the $50 per square foot range, Wallace said.
Diversions, a specialty store that provides relaxation and meditation products for stressed city dwellers, is one Downtown business that hopes to take advantage of the program if the City Council approves it in the coming months.
Diversions landed a busy location when it opened at the corner of Laura and Adams streets a year ago, but refinishing the floor and moving some temporary walls would create a better business fit, owners Daniel Day and Ida Metzger said.
"Visually, I see this back corner becoming a room," Metzger said. "Since we opened, we've had a lot of people ask us if we do
massage, but we don't have the right space.
"Our Downtown hotels don't have spas, so if we could remodel, this store could be a destination for businesses executives visiting Jacksonville."
Not getting city help would break that deal for now, though.
"It would be difficult to do it financially, absolutely," Metzger said. "We're just a start-up, putting down our roots. It would take a while longer to get around to it."
Chamblins Uptown, a used bookstore and café/coffee shop that's been a Downtown social anchor since 2008, is another business that's paying attention to the DIA's renovation program.
General Manager Jennifer O'Donnell said her store's facade could be improved if the wrought iron fence encircling the patio was replaced with a coffee bar for customer seating. She'd also like to "green" up by adding planters.
"It definitely would have a positive effect," O'Donnell said. "This is already a fun place to come to. But the changes would make it more homey and relaxed. I think people would feel more confident and safe in the environment."
Veteran business owner Juan Gonzalez of Hemming Plaza Jewelers is skeptical grants would pick up the pace of Downtown renovation, though. He said large destination projects like an aquarium would drive market investment more reliably.
"I would probably use the money if I owned this building," said Gonzalez, who's rented the storefront at the corner of Hogan and Monroe streets since 2003. "I think the building owners already have enough money to renovate, if they want to. The people who will use the grants are those who would have renovated anyway."
A program that awards $50,000 grants could measure the Downtown business district's will to renovate its aging storefronts.