Ed Burr is a business, community and nonprofit leader who has headed the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, is a member of the Jacksonville Civic Council, is a leader in the Touchdown Jacksonville efforts to sell Jacksonville Jaguars season tickets and was founder of LandMar Group, which he sold and then created GreenPointe Holdings to focus on sustainable development. Burr also founded the Monique Burr Foundation. Burr met with the Daily Record editorial staff Monday.
You’re involved politically as well as with the chamber, the Jacksonville Civic Council, the Monique Burr Foundation and you’ve been active in Downtown development. What is at the top of your priority list right now?
An overarching issue is that we’re at a crossroads of the city. I think this mayor’s race is going to be very critical in determining what kind of city we’re going to be. I mean it’s hard to fly in the winds of economic distress and say that we need to invest more in our city, but if we don’t start to invest more in our city, we’ll never reach the kind of city I think that we can be, and the kind of economic prosperity we can have, the kind of employment levels that we can get, and truly become the city that we can be.
I’m a firm believer that through economic prosperity, through job creation, we’d lift up the most needy in our city; that businesses will be the bridge to helping the needy in our city. The future of our city is going to be based on economic prosperity.
We’ve had a great mayor who’s had to deal with a lot of financial distress facing him over these last several years, and we’ve had some opportunities missed that we hopefully won’t miss in the next election cycle.
What are some of those missed opportunities?
Because of the economic distress, our downtown. You see other downtowns emerging and becoming successful, (but) they’re all struggling. There’s not a downtown, there’s not a city, that hasn’t struggled, but it seemed like we were so close to making great strides downtown until about 2005 or 2006. Then, not only have we not made strides, we’ve lost jobs downtown and vacancy rates are going up downtown. I think every great city ultimately has a great core, a great heart, and downtown’s the heart of Jacksonville. We have such an opportunity with our river, and so many great things going on downtown, that we have to start to turn that around.
What are some of the ideas that you have that might be able to spur that economic development Downtown?
I work with two different groups on the downtown redevelopment concept. One’s our Civic Council, and you know Preston Haskell is chairing downtown revitalization with the Civic Council, trying to take a long-term view of what’s going to happen downtown. (Those) details include planning, financing, an implementation agency and an implementation vehicle. One of our problems with downtown is that we don’t have a representative for downtown. Our mayor’s the only downtown advocate, and that’s sometimes a tough place to be.
The chamber downtown revitalization group has two specific subcommittees. One’s working on really marketing downtown to businesses and recruitment and retention of business downtown. There’s nothing but good things you can say about what the chamber’s accomplished, especially in terms of job and employment recruitment.
But there’s never really been a focus on downtown and they’ve never felt like it should be their focus. Chamber membership is seven counties. But I think they’re even starting to come around to saying we have to have some unique data on downtown.
The other subcommittee is working on (attracting people to spend time downtown). There are already some great things going on downtown. We need to work on getting those connected to the citizens, connected to the county, and get people coming downtown.
How important is development of the riverfront to the future of Downtown? There will be people who say too much is being invested.
You always have to fight the battle, and it’s to make the case of why downtowns are important to every citizen in your county. A lot of people get it, and that’s why it’s important under the chamber subcommittee that we connect people back to downtown.
But ultimately, investing in downtown means you’re not investing in the suburbs. So if you ask someone the simple question, ‘do you want to build a park downtown or build a ball field in your neighborhood?’ the instinctive answer would be, ‘my park in my neighborhood.’ Well, the best answer might be to build your park in downtown and to help boost your downtown. I don’t know if anyone can point out to me a city that has success and has economic prosperity and has a weak downtown and a weak heart and a weak core. You have to repeat the case, you have to sell it over and over and over again, and I think you have to have an advocacy group that believes it and understands it and talks about it constantly and tries to make the case for someone to reach those people, and get them more involved in downtown. It can be a great place. And as downtown gets better, more people become supportive of it.
LandMar bought the Shipyards property Downtown, but its parent company filed for bankruptcy reorganization. Now that the Shipyards property is going back to the City, do you have any insights on what you would like to see happen with that property?
Oh, I could plan it perfectly, given the chance to do that, but the property must be designed or planned in connection with the overall City plan. You have the entertainment center down there, the football field, the baseball field, the arena. You have some natural things that should belong down there. It shouldn’t be planned in and of itself without paying attention to what’s happening in the rest of the city.
Are we going to see another Downtown plan or long-range vision? There are a lot of plans out there, but are they workable?
The master plan that was approved was certainly a great starting point. You don’t have to start over. You take the work that has been put into place and go from there.
Where do the Jaguars fit in all this?
The Jaguars are integral to downtown. They’re integral to the region. That’s why I served in Touchdown Jacksonville. I heard someone say that sports reporters on their talk radio show said that since Team Teal (the ticket drive) has failed, do you think it was just a mistake for the Jaguars to hire (former Jaguar) Tony Boselli? If I hadn’t gone into a meeting, I’d have called the radio show and had a conversation with them because Team Teal has succeeded on every possible front you could ask it to. First, the Jaguars didn’t hire Tony Boselli. Tony Boselli has volunteered on behalf of Touchdown Jacksonville, which created Team Teal to really help reconnect the Jaguars to the citizens of Northeast Florida.
And our commitment was to get that connection back and be sure the blackouts were lifted and sell as many season tickets as we can.
Well, as we sit here today, I think the blackouts will be lifted for at least the first few games. There have been more season tickets sold this year than in any year of the history of the Jaguars. Touchdown Jacksonville recruited Tony Boselli to serve as (Team Teal) commissioner. He has served it admirably, without any remuneration at all.
And to hear someone say that it was a failure? They didn’t know what they were talking about. They didn’t even understand the structure, and then talked about it being a failure. It succeeded on every possible front you could ask it to succeed on, and I think before the season kicks off, we’ll be able to announce the sellout of season tickets.
And the other goal of Team Teal was to reach out to the citizens and small business, not to sell tickets on the backs of big business and twist arms, because we know that’s not sustainable. And that’s what’s happened. Team Teal has been a success on every front. Seven games were blacked out last year. We will not have seven games blacked out this year. I know that for sure.
The city has gotten reconnected to the Jaguars. I think Team Teal will continue for a long time and I think that the Jaguars will be part of the fabric of Jacksonville for many years.
You’re indicating optimism that the Jaguars will stay in Jacksonville.
I don’t control what 32 (team owners) might say about the Jaguars, and I certainly don’t control what (Jaguars owner) Wayne Weaver will say, but I know the city has responded to do everything it can to make sure the Jaguars are here, in a way that should ring loud and clear to the NFL owners. I’m very optimistic that they’ll be here for many years
Let’s talk about sustainable development. How tough has green building been to maintain?
It’s tough on two fronts. GreenPointe was formed with a goal to find better ways to do development from a sustainable standpoint from the ground up. You often hear of green building, and that often starts once everything is in place. But (the goal is) finding the most sustainable green ways to have water service, sewer service, recycling operations. There have not been any new communities developed in the last four or five years, so implementation of that has stalled because of the huge number of vacant undeveloped lots in the marketplace. So there is no initiative for new development opportunities. But GreenPointe will continue to have that ambition. We’re buying distressed communities where we can today. We’ll certainly put as much of our GreenPointe influence on those as we can.
Are we headed for a double-dip recession? What’s your take on the economy?
First, my take on the economy is that it’s still struggling. From our perspective, residential real estate development is so linked to jobs, so linked to employment, that until there’s a marked improvement in employment and jobs, there’s not going to be a marked improvement in housing. There are sectors over the Florida market that rely on retirement and I think a lot of retirement plans have been pushed back, so it’s not like that’s going to carry the day. The inventory overhang is still with us. The new home overhang isn’t nearly what it was, but the resale overhang is still pretty deep.
Some markets are doing fairly well, they’re priced well, they’re located well and they’re still generating some activity.
I am not a macroeconomic person or visionary, but I don’t see any fundamental reason why we’re going to have a double-dip recession. I think it’s going to be a long, slow process coming out of it, and there are going to be bumps along the way.
This recession is considered the worst economic downturn since the Depression. What do you think businesses have learned?
I was in the real estate development world. There was a confluence of events where the feel of prosperity, along with a series of financing tools, made people feel almost invincible financially. And I remember employment one time going down and housing prices going up, and housing absorption going up, and I remember sitting in our offices thinking, something’s amiss here. I didn’t have the global perspective to figure out what it was. But as we lived it at the time, for the first time ever, most people who were employed were invested in the stock market.
We looked at ... maybe this was true. It was happening and it was sustainable and it was based on a different rule of economics that you had more people enjoying more wealth, because they had more investment vehicles, 401(k) plans were put in place and they had never really been very popular before, and now people were investing in the market, and the market’s doing well, and their house values were doing well.
Well, their incomes didn’t change enough to afford that lifestyle, so the growth in net worth was never supported by the growth in income, and you look back now, and say, what was I thinking? It was all obvious. That’s the benefit of a rearview mirror.
I think that businesses have learned, certainly my business has learned, that your market research is critical. Staying in touch with your consumer is the key, and always watching the few fundamental key issues to your industry. We’re very data-driven today. Instincts are still good, and nothing replaces walking the properties and being part of the property owners and understanding your marketplace, but data is critical in making key decisions in this market.
You’re invested in nonprofit work as well. What have you seen in this economy?
The Monique Burr Foundation was strongly supported by the development industry. It had its benefactor in LandMar. It had a lot of supporters who were homebuilders and co-developers, and when things started to slide in ‘05 and ‘06 and ‘07, we had to remake ourselves.
We made a change in our executive director to one who was more a marketing person, a development person. We had to find new sources of financing. We had to retrench in some of the programs we were sponsoring and get back to our core program, and today, in 2010, the future for the Monique Burr Foundation looks brighter than it ever has.
We have a lot of challenges in terms of fundraising, but what’s most important is the teaching of programs to children to help them prevent, or intervene in the events of, child abuse, and get the program to as many children as we can in the state of Florida.
Every day our staff goes to work with one goal in mind, and that’s to get our educational program taught to as many kids as they can.
I suspect most not-for-profits have gone though a similar process.
Do you receive public service grants?
No, we’re not going to accept government funding because it’s so volatile. Even as we reformatted, we didn’t take government service grants.
You’ve spoken on the importance of leadership in terms of getting things done. Ever considered running for office?
I’ve been asked a few times and flattered by that. Unfortunately, my lifestyle would not lend itself to running or serving in public office. I’m probably gone either on business travel or personal travel 90 days a year, and I’m not sure that the citizens of Jacksonville would appreciate paying me while I’m gone 90 days a year.
In the chamber, we formed JaxBiz to get the chamber back in politics. Out of JaxBiz, we formed the Political Leadership Institute, which I think will be one of the more significant changes in the face of the city in a dozen years.
We’ve had two full classes go through the Political Leadership Institute, which encourages people who are thinking about running for office, or maybe not thinking of running for office but would have the will to do so, to learn about what running for office is all about.
You always have that co-worker or friend in church, or friend in your social group, that you think would make a great politician, and you say, ‘would you consider running for City Council?’, the answer is an easy no.
When you say, ‘would you consider going to a weekend institute to learn about running for office and it’s all sponsored by companies, and it’s going to have great forums and great speakers, and you can learn about the process, would you do that for a weekend?’ That’s a much easier ask and a much easier answer.
So we’ve had our second full class. I think both classes have had over 90 applicants. I want to say the first class had 99 applicants. If I’d known that, I would have applied just so we could say we had 100.
We’ve chosen 25 applicants in both of them, and some of them are running for City Council. I think we’ll look back in a dozen years and say that was a point in time that the face of Jacksonville changed.
Most of the people who are on the Chamber’s Downtown Council don’t have businesses Downtown. What can the chamber do to make Downtown Council that advocate you were talking about? Does that have a role in that process?
It certainly does. Getting that council involved with (the downtown revitalization process) would be critical.
I understand that 11 or 12 bars downtown have sort of popped up out of nowhere, that have this great social scene going on that no one really knows about unless you’re young (adults). That’s something to build on. That’s how things get started. They don’t get started by a bunch of white-haired guys and gals pontificating in rooms about what to do downtown. They get started by getting people involved.
What part can the arts play in bringing downtown back to life?
The real key is youth, our young adults. And obviously, arts appeal to everybody, but they certainly have a strong appeal to young adults, the cultural aspects, bars, arts, educational institutions. We had a couple times over our past that if you could redo it today, the Florida Coastal School of Law might be downtown, or FSCJ. If you could take every higher education group and put them downtown, that’s a dynamic force for change. If we could somehow get those young folks brought into the downtown environment, that’s what’s going to bring downtown back. It’s business, cultural, social, retail, residential starts - jobs follow that. You can’t tell which one’s going to come first, because you’re going to need them all, but all of those are going to be big players in changing downtown.
Can government be run like a business?
It’s not designed to run like a business. It’s designed to run just the opposite of a business. Directors and CEOs move in lockstep. They move together. They make strategic plans together. The management team is empowered to implement those strategic plans.
Government is designed to be in conflict. It is designed to be inefficient. One can argue that an efficient government almost becomes a monarchy.
You know, we want gridlock as citizens. Government is not designed to be efficient. You have a City Council that’s designed to be the mayor’s checks and balances, to make sure he’s not overly empowered.
Now, can you run every department as efficiently as possible? Sure. But government itself is not designed to run like a business. So when you hear someone say, ‘if I’m elected, I’m going to run it like a business,’ then they’re naive in understanding what government is. I think if they say, ‘I’ve got a great business mind, and I can apply that to the issues of government,’ then I think they understand it better.
Can you apply great business principles? Sure. Can great business leaders make great mayors? Certainly. But that’s because they understand that they need to adapt to work in the conditions that they’re being challenged with and they have the ability to do that.
You mentioned that you travel a lot. What’s the last vacation you took?
I had my two sons on the fishing boat with me, and we went through the Southern Bahamas, then up in the Turks and Caicos in eight days. We had 18 blue marlin bites, caught 13 blue marlin. They were trapped on the boat with me, we anchored up at night and we had a great time. And they’re 19 and 16. And it’s a memory that dad will have forever, and at some point, my kids will probably look back and enjoy it.