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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Apr. 9, 201412:00 PM EST

Downtown Investment Authority backs $800,000 for Hemming Plaza proposal

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by: David Chapman

Over the next several days, Hemming Plaza will be programmed with One Spark activities that will attract thousands. The Downtown park on the doorsteps of City Hall will be a main attraction of the annual crowdfunding festival.

The Downtown Investment Authority wants the park — criticized by many for years as being a Downtown sore spot — to have that kind of appeal year-round.

The authority board voted 6-0 Tuesday to spend $800,000 — close to 20 percent of its $4.1 million economic development budget — to make that happen. Three members did not attend the meeting — Vice Chair Jim Bailey (publisher of the Daily Record), Rob Clements and Kay Harper.

The resolution gives $800,000 to Friends of Hemming Park for an 18-month operations and management contract. Under the proposal, the group will hire staff to make the park safer and cleaner, schedule events and work with surrounding property owners on accomplishing those goals.

The $800,000 would be in addition to the $200,000 already budgeted this year and the $250,000 the Hemming group has committed to raise. The initial bump, authority CEO Aundra Wallace said, was for initial startup costs.

The Hemming group was the only respondent to a December request for proposals for the contract.

The five-member group comprises Wayne Wood, Bill Prescott, Diane Brunet-Garcia, Terry Lorince (executive director of Downtown Vision) and Vince Cavin. During the transition period, Wood would serve as interim director with support of Downtown Vision staff.

And, while the single entity has no track record, Wallace said the individuals have had success elsewhere.

“Everything is a risk,” he told board members.

Wallace advocated for the group to receive the funding, after telling the board funding other Downtown projects like the Shipyards and Sax Seafood property was premature. Others, like the Bostwick Building or Laura Street Trio, could use other funding sources.

One program the authority is funding is a Downtown retail enhancement program for Northbank businesses to renovate. The authority has allocated $750,000 for the program, which board member Melody Bishop suggested doubling during the Tuesday discussion.

Developer Mike Langton told the board that funding the Hemming Group from the $4.1 million budget was “the wrong thing to do” because the group would continue to come back each year for funding. Like Bishop, he said the retail enhancement program would be more beneficial. Langton’s renovation at 121 W. Forsyth St. received $100,000 as part of that program earlier this year.

Wallace said the funding would not be continuous for the Hemming Plaza group, which he would need to become self-sufficient.

The group anticipates creating nine jobs, including a director, who will be paid $60,000; an operations manager with a salary of $40,000; and an administrative support and a volunteer coordinator with salaries of $35,000 each.

The five remaining hourly positions, to be employed by DVI, are for cleaning, beautification, safety, hospitality and social services outreach. Their pay (including benefits) will range from $18.75 to $29 per hour.

The idea to fund the group will still need City Council approval, but several council members said Tuesday evening they were pleased with the decision.

“It’s about time,” said council member Denise Lee. “I’ve been screaming and hollering for years about Hemming Plaza.”

Lee chaired a committee on the park that began in early 2012 until the group handed the responsibilities to the authority.

She said the recent development was “refreshing” and she was enthusiastic Wood was a part of the group.

Council member Don Redman has been before the authority board in recent months pushing for action to improve the park. He called Tuesday’s development “great” and said he supported the idea, as well as the funding source.

“We have got to get something started there,” he said.

Council President Bill Gulliford said he wanted to see the details of the resolution and funding, but that the park is the “key to start Downtown development.”

“We have to take a hard look at it,” he said.

In December, Gulliford had expressed concern over the amount of money the group was requesting.

“It may be a champagne budget that we may need to drop back to a beer budget. It’s a starting point. Now we’ll get into negotiations,” he said at the

time.

[email protected]

@writerchapman

(904) 356-2466

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