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James F. Bailey Jr.
Jax Daily Record Monday, Sep. 9, 201312:00 PM EST

Chamber trips have brought few changes

by: Publisher: James F. Bailey Jr.

It's fitting that the JAX Chamber of Commerce will launch its 33rd annual leadership trip Sept. 17, just as the city finally begins renovation of the crumbling Southbank Riverwalk.

The riverwalk is one of the most tangible results that can be directly attributed to the annual trips made to cities across the United States by business leaders and elected officials.

It all began when Jake Godbold was mayor and his sermon every day was the need to create public/private partnerships to move Jacksonville forward.

One way to spark that partnership, Godbold thought, was to take business and civic leaders to see what other cities were doing that worked.

San Antonio was an early visit.

The story goes that Godbold and the mayor of San Antonio were admiring the activity along both banks of the San Antonio River in downtown, a sliver of water compared to the vastness of our St. Johns River, when Godbold said, "I'd give anything to have your riverwalk."

The San Antonio mayor replied, "Heck mayor, I'd give anything to have your river."

Now, all of these years later, the wooden boards of the original 1985 riverwalk will be replaced by a concrete walkway at a cost of around $15 million.

In a lot of ways, the Southbank Riverwalk has been a great success. It has been used by tens of thousands of residents and visitors to enjoy our downtown riverfront.

It also inspired the construction of the Northbank Riverwalk.

But, like so many of the great ideas that come back from the chamber trips, the Southbank Riverwalk has never reached its potential.

The master plan called for construction of an open-air market over the river adjacent to what is now the Wyndham Hotel.

There was to be a raised grass seating area, called "The Grove," and a terraced seating area for special events.

The plan even called for an aquarium facing Friendship Fountain, a sidewalk café under the Main Street Bridge and a 3,000-seat amphitheater built out into the river.

None of those ever happened.

Imagine how much better the Southbank Riverwalk would have been with just some of these amenities.

Each year, the chamber's vice chair picks the city for the next trip, when that person is chamber chair.

Gregory Smith, Northeast Florida market president for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, selected Charlotte, N.C., for this year's visit. Charlotte is the second largest banking center in the U.S., behind New York City, anchored by the headquarters for Bank of America.

Like previous trips, once again downtown development tops the agenda for those going to Charlotte.

Ironically, the chamber's trip comes right before the vote by our City Council on the budget that will gut funds previously provided to the Downtown Investment Authority for investment in our urban core.

Maybe in Charlotte our leaders will learn something — find a magic bullet for Downtown — that they've not seen or heard in any of these other cities.

Better yet, if they do learn something, we need to find a way to follow-through — to plant it, nurture it and watch it grow.

One place they might look is the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, which was inspired by San Antonio's riverwalk and is tied into an extensive urban park system in Charlotte.

Perhaps what Charlotte has done with its greenway will inspire us how we utilize resources like Hogan's and McCoy's creeks and Riverside and Brooklyn to tie more into the life of downtown and the Northbank Riverwalk.

I think these chamber trips are good for Jacksonville. It's a way for Jacksonville's leaders to invest their time and intelligence in making this a better place.

But, the leaders attending the trips need to be able to envision the improvements and lead the collaborative effort necessary to make things happen. Without that follow through, the trips are meaningless.

I would love to see the chamber do a five-year review of what was learned in Cincinnati, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Seattle, and what has changed here for the better, as a result.

Those cities have many of the assets we have in Jacksonville, yet we are still traveling all over the country looking for what we have right here. Why is that?

The bigger question is when are we going to reach our potential so other cities want to come here to see what we have done?

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