Outside the Barnett National Bank building on Tuesday, people and cars consistently streamed by during a busy lunch hour.
It was a stark contrast to the emptiness that’s filled the building for more than two decades.
Many, like Jacobs Jewelers owner Roy Thomas, see the looming building at Adams and Laura streets as a key to triggering Downtown’s revitalization. A critical piece for what one broker called the “complicated puzzle of Downtown.”
“It was very vibrant in its heyday,” said Thomas, who purchased the jewelry store across the street in 1987 but has worked there since the 1960s. “It was nice for a while.”
Bankers, lawyers and accountants streamed in and out of the bustling building each day.
There have been constant starts and stops for the Barnett site for more than a decade. Numerous owners with even more plans that never came to fruition have left the structure the way it sits now.
Today, there’s another opportunity for the Barnett building — and perhaps Downtown.
There will be a foreclosure auction at 11 a.m., the last step in a legal case spawned by a dispute between developer Steve Atkins and Stache Investments, a group founded by Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan.
The public sale is part of a judge finding Atkins owed Stache Investments $4.6 million for loans, interest and fees stemming from Khan loaning Atkins’ SouthEast Development Group $3 million in April 2013 to redevelop the Barnett building.
Getting the right developer and plan for the building is critical, said Downtown Investment Authority CEO Aundra Wallace. “The potential is there,” he said.
Restoring that building would bring to life one of Downtown’s truly historic assets to help spur neighboring developments or get the most out of surrounding investments like 20 W. Adams St., Wallace said.
The vacant Adams Street structure down from the Barnett building is being converted into student housing for Florida State College at Jacksonville and a café run by the school’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality program.
Those with commercial real estate ties in Downtown also see the potential for a domino effect.
“The location of the Barnett is intriguing … it’s ‘Main and Main’,” said Traci Jenks, a senior director for CBRE. “It’s most definitely a catalytic project.”
Whoever ends up with the building will need to be well-funded, she said, but the opportunity is there to reactivate the parcel and make it an integral part of Downtown.
Margie Seaman, founder of Seaman Realty & Management Co., calls restoring the building “a significant piece to the complicated puzzle of Downtown.”
“It’s a heartbreaking eyesore,” she said. “It’s also a daunting undertaking for a subdistrict of a large city that has not proved itself to the investment community.”
Seaman said having the highly visible building fall into the right hands and be successful would boost investor confidence for every part of Downtown.
City Council member Greg Anderson, who serves as the liaison to the Downtown Investment Authority board, agrees.
“If you look at the center of Downtown, you’d probably put a lasso on that building,” he said.
By the end of today, Downtown advocates will know who has secured the building.
Seeing progress will take time, though.
For watchers like Thomas, he hopes it won’t be long — he’s been waiting for years.
“It’s the biggest thing down here and has the greatest potential of getting things going again,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
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