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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jun. 13, 201412:00 PM EST

$1M plan for private group to manage Hemming Plaza heading to City Council

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

Seven months after the city’s second request for proposals for private management of Hemming Plaza, it appears an agreement could be on the horizon.

Legislation is being prepared for introduction to City Council, possibly as soon as June 24, that will propose spending $1 million in taxpayer dollars for the first 18 months of a five-year management contract between the city and I3 Jax DBA Friends of Hemming Plaza.

The group submitted the only response to the November 2013 RFP, which was the second version of the request issued after the initial RFP offered in July 2013 yielded no respondents.

The search for a private entity to take over management of the 1.5-acre public park in the square block south of City Hall began in September 2011 when council members Denise Lee and Robin Lumb invited business owners and Downtown stakeholders to discuss how the park is used and to develop ways to improve the park experience for the entire community.

That led to the formation of a committee that identified and evaluated various concepts for the park. The months of deliberations culminated in the decision to attempt to turn over the day-to-day management and programming of the space to a non-government group.

Bill Prescott is on the board of directors of the Friends. He also serves on the boards of Downtown Vision Inc. and the JAX Chamber’s Downtown Marketing Collaborative committee.

The final elements of the contract were worked out this week, he said. The budget for the first 18 months of the Friends’ management of the plaza includes $200,000 from the Parks Department budget and $800,000 from the Downtown Investment Authority. The Friends are obligated to raise an additional $250,000.

Prescott said the Friends will develop a schedule for raising the funds based on performance conditions in the agreement. The final language of the agreement is still being determined but “future funding will be contingent” on achieving the goal, he said.

The board already has begun discussions with the plaza’s neighbors, including the Jacksonville Public Library and the Museum of Contemporary Art, to develop programs that could utilize the park space.

Prescott described the relationships being established as a “model of collaboration” that will allow a fast start when the management agreement goes into effect.

“As soon as it’s approved, we can hit the ground,” he said.

Terry Lorince, executive director of Downtown Vision and a member of the Friends’ board of directors, said the board has been working closely with the city to ensure timely approval of the management agreement.

The agreement that will be considered by council has benefits for the Friends, the city, the community and the plaza, she said.

“It’s a deal that gives the city some assurances and gives us the ability to do events and to make it easier for other people to do events,” she said.

The first step will be to hire an executive director, who will then hire additional staff for cleaning and other services.

The Friends’ proposal included a director at a salary of $60,000; an operations manager with a salary of $40,000; and administrative support and volunteer coordinator at salaries of $35,000 each.

Two cleaning and beautification positions, each at $12.52 per hour, two safety and hospitality positions at $12.93 per hour and a social services outreach specialist to be paid $22.32 per hour also were specified in the proposal.

Council member Don Redman, whose district includes Hemming Plaza, said he will vote in favor of the agreement and predicted support of the measure among his colleagues, who pass by or through the plaza when they go to City Hall.

“I think we all can see the need. It’s a lot of money, but I think the council will support it,” he said. “Until we change the atmosphere in Hemming Plaza, we’re not going to change Downtown.”

Council member John Crescimbeni said he couldn’t comment specifically until he has had the opportunity to review the legislation after it is filed.

“I’ll be happy to evaluate it,” he said, “But it sounds like a lot of money to me. I’m sure every park would like to have half that amount of money” for operations.

City Council President Bill Gulliford is more optimistic.

The $200,000 already appropriated for the park could be transferred without legislation, he said, and “the $800,000 says the DIA is committed to the project. I’m willing to take a chance that they could make it work.”

However, if after 18 months the desired results aren’t evident or the terms aren’t met, “it would be a tough sell” to renew the agreement, Gulliford said.

Authority board Chairman Oliver Barakat said the Hemming Plaza legislation will be the first of a series of measures that will be presented to the council in the next few months.

The proposal is the authority’s first foray into the project approval process since it was established in October 2012.

Barakat said the next legislation will be the authority’s Retail Enhancement Program to allow Downtown businesses to apply for improvement grants. Also in the pipeline is the Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency, a regulatory plan that will lay out future development guidelines and criteria, and a Downtown business improvement plan.

Barakat said he expects the authority board will adopt both by the end of July and then

send them to council for its approval.

Council enacting legislation to codify the CRA and business plan, Barakat said, will “give the authority more authority,” including the ability to grant incentives for projects without additional approval from the council.

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