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- 2014 - February - 11th -
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Publisher James F. Bailey Jr.

Posturing and politics deter Downtown growth

By James F. Bailey Jr., Publisher

Recently, Times-Union columnist Ron Littlepage trumpeted that Downtown needs a “hero” to aggressively fix some of the more obvious problems.

Amen.

But, I would say the issues of Downtown need leadership.

Frankly, I’ve had my fill of posturing, empty rhetoric, back-and-forth sniping and unproductive one-upmanship.

More often than not it seems our “leaders” think it’s about who gets the last word or who can best draw out the faults of someone else.

It happens in the City Council, the mayor’s office, agencies created to focus on Downtown and the Downtown Investment Authority, of which I’ve been a member from the beginning.

This community deserves better than what it’s getting. It’s time to stop. It’s time to lead.

Pioneers and entrepreneurs deserve a chance for success.

Investors and developers deserve a return on their investments.

Taxpayers deserve to see their hard-earned money put to good use and should demand more.

Downtown has never been positioned better for success than now. So, we have to ask: If not now, when?

Instead of making things happen, we meet solutions with resistance, throw up unneeded challenges and kill good ideas with criticism.

We should embrace people who want to participate in Downtown with open arms.

Instead, their ideas are frequently absorbed or blocked by someone looking at self-enhancement and empire expansion.

That’s not leadership.

Leadership is about collaboration. It’s about establishing the value of ideas and people and then working like hell together to succeed.

When that happens, investors and entrepreneurs see opportunities and seize them.

Small business owners will want to be Downtown without the need for city incentives because Downtown is where they can have customers and make money.

Ben Carter doesn’t pay incentives for businesses to come to the St. Johns Town Center. Instead he creates an environment and a market so that good companies with good products can make money.

Carter also makes sure the Town Center is clean, safe and not riddled with problems.

In Downtown, we have a culture of mediocrity and we reflect that image to the community when we should be raising expectations and elevating pride that drives engagement from the very best. That’s how to create success.

Often, some inexperienced and under-capitalized business owners without good business plans are happy to move in. When things turn sour, landlords get stiffed and the word is spread that Downtown is a terrible place to do business.

That’s when you hear: “If they want me back they will have to pay.”

Unfortunately, not much has changed since a personal encounter in 2003 when I worked with Michael Munz and others to develop the Bay Street Town Center in anticipation of the Super Bowl and what it could leverage for Jacksonville.

I think we did things right by putting together a good plan for a pedestrian-friendly entertainment district.

We lobbied the right people and created a matrix of the kind of local businesses and entrepreneurs that should engage in the foundation of what we hoped would be the beginning of a new Downtown.

The Bay Street Town Center is still alive, but barely.

First, the Super Bowl hurt Bay Street in spite of what we hoped.

Then the economy tanked.

The vacant courthouse has remained dormant and the property is undeveloped.

And to make matters worse, in an effort to appease the Florida-Georgia game officials, the city installed overhead directional lights on Bay Street in the heart of the entertainment district. That pretty much sacked any notion of making it “pedestrian friendly.”

The struggling businesses that were attracted to our concept basically felt they were in the game too early. I disagree. I think they were left hanging out to dry.

This is the mistake that often seems to repeat itself.

When businesses are interested in putting a stake in Downtown, we should embrace them and introduce them to a culture that will breed success.

When City investment is needed, it should be to help finish the job.

As an example, when developer John Rood was looking to help jump-start Downtown by investing in the Carling and 11E, he had a responsibility to make money for his company.

Rood took a risk. He went out on a limb.

As a result we have two successful residential buildings in Downtown.

People moved in, but when they walked out onto the sidewalks, there was a flaw in the plan.

Again, great effort but there was no execution to complete the job by giving those residents retail and entertainment options to make them self-sufficient.

Here’s my concern.

If we continue to allow Downtown to simply float in a vacuum, powered temporarily by the next good idea, we will blow what could be the last hope to make Downtown work.

We have to ignore the critics and naysayers.

We can’t pay attention to those who are jealous of the success of others.

We can’t let the past interfere with the future.

We need real leadership.

If not now, when?

jbailey@baileypub.com

(904) 356-2466

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