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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Mar. 30, 202108:50 PM EST

Curry group says millions needed for riverfront parks, homeless Downtown

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The panel of business leaders recommends $104 million in one-time and $7.7 million in recurring city spending for Urban Core improvements.  
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

Mayor Lenny Curry’s Downtown Working Group recommends the city spend more than $104 million to revitalize Downtown, boost riverfront parks, add entertainment and help the homeless.

The group of CEOs and business leaders voted 5-0 on March 30 to adopt a list that includes $70 million for riverfront public spaces, $20 million to help relocate and bolster the Sulzbacher Center’s homeless services and $12 million for Downtown events, public art, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, a Cultural Council juried art festival and $2.2 million for street lighting improvements.

The panel, chaired by The Vestcor Companies Chairman John Rood, also wants the Curry administration to add $7.7 million in recurring spending to the city budget for:

■ Street-level beautification and maintenance.

■ A fund for Downtown cultural events. 

■ Staff to speed up Downtown projects.

■ Support and expansion of college and university-level education in the Urban Core.

The vote at the Jacksonville Main Library capped the group’s third and final meeting.

The group included GreenPointe Holdings LLC CEO Ed Burr; JAXUSA President Aundra Wallace; Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nathaniel Ford; and Fidelity National Information Services Inc. Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff Amy Mergen.

Downtown Investment Authority CEO Lori Boyer was on the panel but not a voting member.

Group member and Hanania Automotive Group founder and CEO Jack Hanania was not present for the March 30 vote. 

Riverfront parks

For riverfront projects, the group urged the Curry administration and City Council to spend $40 million over four years to create a “destination” riverfront park on the Northbank and a Riverwalk extension from the unfinished Berkman Plaza II to Metropolitan Park.

 Another $30 million one-time expense would be spent to complete the 4.5-acre park space at the former Jacksonville Landing, now Riverfront Plaza, and the Liberty Street Basin Marina near the planned Ford on Bay. The total also includes $9 million for project overruns.

“If we spend $70 million over the next four to five years, we’d have a world-class riverfront park system,” Burr said.

“I think that’s aspirational and something we should support.”

“That, I think, would draw a lot of additional development,” Mergen said.

Advocacy groups, like the nonprofit Riverfront Parks Now and Scenic Jacksonville, have lobbied the DIA for an integrated riverfront park system Downtown.

From left, Aundra Wallace, Nat Ford, Ed Burr, John Rood, Amy Mergen, and Lori Boyer.

Scenic Jacksonville Board President Susan Caven cited the Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, metro areas as examples of cities that have made public investments in waterfront parks to draw private development and people to their downtowns.

“Today, the city owns most of the land from the Acosta Bridge to Metropolitan Park and this is the only opportunity Jacksonville has to invest in a real, serious, significant destination park system,” Caven said.

Boyer said the nonprofit Jessie Ball duPont Fund is working with the DIA on a study to coordinate programming at riverfront parks planned throughout Downtown.

The Jacksonville Jaguars’ plan to redevelop the 8-acre former Kids Kampus, part of Metropolitan Park’s 24.7-acre footprint, and a portion of the adjacent Shipyards was not part of the group’s riverfront conversation. 

Both properties are owned by the city and their redevelopment has been a concern for groups like Riverfront Parks Now.

Jaguars owner Shad Khan wants the property on East Bay Street to build a Four Seasons hotel, orthopedic medical facility and mixed-use development.

Public park space is part of Khan’s development plan.

Boyer said the 14.32 acres of Metropolitan Park restricted by a 1981 National Park Service grant will remain park space.

After the meeting, Rood said the recurring park dollars could be integrated with Khan’s riverfront plans.

Relocating Sulzbacher 

Rood said adequate public funding to help end homelessness in Jacksonville is the right thing to do to promote economic development. It has been a focus for the group since its first meeting Feb. 22. 

“At some point, it’s going to jeopardize our ability to attract businesses and people Downtown,” he said.

The $20 million proposed March 30 would be used in part to help Sulzbacher cover any financial gaps to relocate its services after low-income tax credits, new market tax credits, government grants and private donations. 

Rood said the city also could use the money for permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

Cindy Funkhouser, president and CEO of Sulzbacher, told the Downtown business leaders March 9 the organization is working to find a site for its $20 million to $25 million, three-phase Sulzbacher Enterprise Village.

Fidelity National Information Services Inc. Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff Amy Mergen and Downtown Investment Authority CEO Lori Boyer.

It would create a space like the Sulzbacher Village for Women and Families and relocate the organization’s 25-year Downtown 611 E. Adams St. operations.

Funkhouser said the concept includes permanent and temporary housing and services such as job training.

Rood called the proposed new city funding for homeless housing, employment and health services a public obligation.

“It’s the right thing to do to show compassion for the homeless population. Nobody, I think, in this community is comfortable walking, driving through Downtown and seeing how we have neglected this population,” Rood said. 

Paying for the projects

The working group’s budget and policy recommendations would be in addition to the city’s and DIA’s duties and programs.

Curry Chief of Staff Jordan Elsbury said administration officials expect property tax revenue to grow for the fiscal year 2021-22 budget, but it is unclear how much money can be put toward the group’s recommendations.

“As we look at these recommendations, they are going to be a priority of the mayor,” he said.

However, the amount of money that will be available still is unclear, Elsbury said.

In the interview, Rood said it will be the mayor and Council’s role to find revenue sources. He acknowledged the city may not have the money for some of the group’s proposals. 

“We’re just saying what is our dream, what is our vision to make Downtown Jacksonville great,” Rood said. “I say this in my business all the time — don’t worry where the money is coming from, let’s talk about what we want to be, what’s the vision, what’s the dream and then we’ll merge that with the money.”

Elsbury said the Curry administration will release a document with the group’s amended recommendations.

Rood said group members intend to support their recommendations in front of Council during this year’s budget process and will lobby Florida state legislators and federal officials for any available dollars to supplement city money.

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