Leaders hope shrimpers return, attracting tourists and development.
Ten years after JaxPort proposed bringing cruise ships to the once bustling commercial fishing hub in Mayport Village, the city of Jacksonville might buy back the property to spur economic development.
JaxPort’s board of directors voted unanimously at a special meeting April 30 to declare the 6.72 acres along Ocean Street and the St. Johns River as surplus property, agreeing to sell it back to the city for $1.
“At this time, JaxPort has no further business for the Mayport property,” JaxPort Chief Operating Officer Frederick Wong told the board.
The agreement requires the city to split revenue generated from a sale or private development of the land for the next 20 years with JaxPort.
Plans for a cruise ship terminal and other projects faded as residents mounted opposition and attempts failed in reaching terms with operators and private developers.
JaxPort recently agreed to a multiyear berthing and terminal use agreement with Carnival Corp. to keep ships docked at the cruise terminal at 9810 August Drive, northwest of the Dames Point Bridge.
JaxPort acquired the land through several transactions with the city, Vestcor entities and other property owners for $12 million in 2008.
At the time, the area served as a center of commercial fishing, charter boats and other marine-related industries and restaurants.
“There are no docks, and really nothing has happened since the port took control,” said City Council member Bill Gulliford, who represents the Beaches area, including Mayport.
He said that after years of neglect, the land, which is next to the St. Johns River Ferry, is in disrepair, fenced off and vacant.
Gulliford introduced legislation May 8 allowing the city to acquire the property, calling the deal a perfect opportunity for economic development.
“If we could get the waterfront back, then the shrimp boats would come back,” Gulliford said.
He said those shrimpers relocated to other Northeast Florida harbors.
“I just think we can turn Mayport into a real destination again,” he said.
The legislation also is subject to approval by Mayor Lenny Curry.
Gulliford said the idea is to attract commercial fishing and related industries to return to a place that supported it and wants it back.
“People in Mayport have suffered for years and I think they want to see the shrimpers back and so do I,” he said.
He said those businesses will encourage more investment in retail shops, restaurants and possibly a hotel.
“I think people like eating at a restaurant that has seafood which they can pretty well figure came right off the boat across the street,” Gulliford said.
“That’s called fresh,” he said.
He said the city will need to rebuild the docks and surrounding infrastructure.
Last year, the city earmarked $900,000 in the Capital Improvement Program budget for the project. The state also pledged $360,000.
Gulliford said he’s trying to secure additional funds through the New Market Tax Credit Program that encourages investment in low-income communities through the creation of Community Development Entities.
A person or business that invests in a CDE earns a vested tax credit equal to 39 percent of the purchase price of the qualified investment.
“If we can get that in place, that’s a game changer that would be much more attractive for developers,” Gulliford said.
Gulliford has direct interest in the area because of his district representation. Council member Lori Boyer became involved for another reason.
“You get a community revitalization project, a tourism project, and an economic development project all in one package,” she said.
Boyer dedicated much of her time on council, particularly in the year after her council presidency, focusing on Jacksonville’s water resources.
She chairs the Jacksonville Waterways Commission.
“From a water activation standpoint, I think of it in terms of what experiences can we create, whether that’s education or tourism,” she said.
Boyer said Mayport can become something like the commercial fishing communities in other coastal areas like New England and Seattle, which draw tourists year-round.
“Everyone comes out to watch the fishing boats come in with their catch,” Boyer said.
“They dump all the fish in the big buckets. The kids love it and it’s kind of an adventure for families,” she said.
Tying in education
A quarter-mile from the docks down Palmer Street is the Marine Science Education Center, part of Duval County Public Schools.
Each year, the center welcomes fifth-graders and other visitors to experience live “wet labs” and hands-on marine biology programming.
Gulliford said the city won’t pursue purchasing the facility or property. However, another educational partner could come to Mayport “to create even more learning experiences.”
“We’ve had some preliminary talks with Jacksonville University and Dr. Quinton White about bringing some MSRI functions down there,” said Gulliford, referring to the school’s Marine Science Research Institute.
White, executive director of the institute, said, “The timing is very good for us and the city.”
White said the school is interested possibly in docking the Ocearch vessel in Mayport and establishing another multipurpose educational facility in the area.
“Bill asked if it was a possibility, and I told him I would be happy to talk about that further,” White said.
JU is the educational partner of Ocearch, a nonprofit group that tracks and monitors marine species such as great white and tiger sharks along the East Coast and other areas.
White said bringing the Ocearch boat to Mayport could be ideal given its proximity, about 2.2 miles to the Atlantic Ocean.
White said any decision from JU will depend on funding and other factors.
He said he also would like a multipurpose facility in Mayport. “That could be an opportunity for a public-private partnership,” he said.
Another option is connecting directly with the Marine Science Education Center, although those discussions haven’t taken place, according to White.
White said the main concern should be the return of commercial and chartered fishing boats.
“It lost that critical mass of shrimp boats and restaurants and activities down there and we need to try to regenerate that,” said White.
“The shrimp boats want a place to dock, fishers want to fish, and I think any educational opportunity will only support that,” he said.
Gulliford said the next step is meeting with those affected.
“That’s scheduled for June 5 right now,” he said. “That’s the chance to lay out where the docks should go or where we should plan this or that.”
He said he’s not meeting with developers yet.
“There’s a lot planned for Mayport and I think that all we have to do is create a little spark and it will fix itself.”