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- 2014 - February - 7th -
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Panel members Michael Balanky, president of Chase Properties Ltd.; Ben Davis, owner of Intuition Ale Works; John Valentino, owner of Mellow Mushroom; and Alexandra Rudzinski, director of development for the city’s Office of Economic Development, discuss retail developers’ difficulties when building on urban infill property. The Thursday event was sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers’ Next Generation committee.

Business owners frustrated by dealings with city

By Carole Hawkins, Contributing Writer

Trendy restaurants and shops are the revitalization pieces that bring character to an urban core. But for some, the experience of creating that character in Jacksonville doesn’t appear to be much fun.

Two Jacksonville retailers and a developer had little love for city government processes Thursday as they talked about the experience of developing infill properties.

Ben Davis, owner of Intuition Ale Works; John Valentino, owner of four Mellow Mushroom franchises; and Michael Balanky, president of Chase Properties Ltd., unleashed frustrations at a panel discussion, as fellow panel member Alexandra Rudzinski, director of development for the city’s Office of Economic Development, listened.

The goal of the event, sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers’ Next Generation committee, was to bring developers, retailers and the city together to talk about how to optimize development while working with local government, historic designations and neighborhood overlays.

But the group got stuck at the first step — agreeing on the problem.

Davis runs a craft brewery

and tap room, a business that straddles two different zoning categories. He said the city is often punitive toward his operation.

“I think there’s a lot of antagonism when you deal with the city,” he said. “When you open up your first week and you’re almost in tears because you’re scared you’re not going to get your state permit to sell your beer, and the next day you have somebody coming up from the city, telling you they’re going to fine you for every sign you have up, it doesn’t put you on the right foot.

“If I treated my customers the way my interactions with the city are, I wouldn’t be in business.”

Valentino was similarly disappointed in the city.

He had already owned three successful Mellow Mushroom franchises in the suburbs. But to get his fourth opened –– an infill project in Avondale –– he had to struggle for two years with a neighborhood group that opposed it for having too little parking.

“There really is no one in the city, outside of the Planning Department, that will help you navigate and get you where you need to be,” he said. “I had to hire an attorney.”

Rudzinski told Valentino that developers would always be challenged by their environment and needed to be aware of whether they are the right fit for a neighborhood.

That idea, though, fell flat.

“You’re almost saying if someone wants to buy the house next to you, they can’t because they’re not the right fit,” Valentino said. “If someone can delay you from opening for two years, then that’s what’s not the right fit.”

Balanky said the public should have a voice in development. But long-drawn-out delays can gut a real estate deal.

“When I developed, I had a great rapport with the city. But there are repercussions to delay, delay, delay,” he said. “We had over 15 public meetings. It went on ad nauseum. If we had contained that in 30 days, we wouldn’t have ended up any differently. But it would have saved a lot of sleepless nights.”

All four did agree that urban infill development is coming back strong and Jacksonville is poised for the opportunity.

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