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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jan. 31, 201805:40 AM EST

Downtown is in John Peyton's sights

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2018 JAX Chamber chair and former Jacksonville mayor focuses the organization’s priorities.

This could be the year for Downtown.

A concentration of city and civic leadership has Downtown in its sights for 2018.

Two powerhouse groups — the Jacksonville Civic Council and JAX Chamber — are taking on the issues, governance, planning and redevelopment of Downtown, specifically the Northbank riverfront and urban core.

John Peyton

As reported, the civic council of influential business and community leaders re-engaged its Downtown task force.

Now, former Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton said he has a framework for his 2018 term as chair of the 3,000-member JAX Chamber.

“I really see my year being more focused on Downtown,” Peyton, 53, said Thursday after the chamber’s Tuesday board retreat.

“I think the stars are aligned for a lot of investment in the urban core and I think the chamber has a role to play in building a constituency that we really haven’t had for Downtown in quite some time,” he said.

Peyton, president and CEO of the privately held Gate Petroleum Co., served as mayor from 2003 to 2011. He said he told chamber board members that Jacksonville’s consolidated government was one of the country’s most enviable forms of governance and it delivers services efficiently and responsively.

“There are huge benefits,” he said.

One of the few negatives, he said, was “I think we lost our voice for Downtown.”

Peyton said Downtown lost advocates as retailers and businesses moved out of the urban core over the past decades.

“My experience as mayor was that there wasn’t the constituency there that really enabled policymakers to invest adequately,” he said.

Peyton, a Republican, said most of the Downtown investments were made at the urging of mayors, such as Jake Godbold for the Jacksonville Landing, the Omni Jacksonville Hotel, the Prime Osborn Convention Center and the Jacksonville Riverwalk. Godbold served from 1978 to 1987.

Mayor Ed Austin, who served 1991-95, led River City Renaissance and Mayor John Delaney, 1995-2003, led the Better Jacksonville Plan, he said.

Peyton said the city spent a lot of money on Laura Street and Friendship Fountain and making improvements to Metropolitan Park.

“Mayors have always gotten it, but it wasn’t because there was a large constituency. It was because it made so much sense to have an identity in your core and have a place where people can come together.”

Mayor Lenny Curry supports Downtown redevelopment and traveled with Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan to visit entertainment zones in sports complexes.

“Mayor Curry is deeply committed to Downtown and I want to help him,” Peyton said.

Setting and following priorities

JAX Chamber, Peyton said, holds a tradition of effective leadership.

“Let’s take that and build a natural constituency and establish some priorities based on the Downtown master plan that the DIA has thoughtfully assembled and let’s establish priorities that supersede mayors’ terms and council presidents’ terms that we can foster through time,” Peyton said.

The civic council also wants to explore how to infuse the Downtown Investment Authority with more funding, independence and durability of decisions.

Peyton said what’s lacking is the staying power of a master plan of priorities that survive time, “because the tendency has been for every mayor and every administration to kind of redefine what the plan is.”

The board retreat set the tone for the chamber’s determination of the important elements “that require heavy lifting from a public policy perspective,” he said.

The chamber board will meet in February, he said. Leadership will lay out the direction, led by Peyton.

Peyton also noted that chamber Chair-elect Debbie Buckland, market president for Branch Banking & Trust Co. in Jacksonville, also is a Downtown advocate. 

Peyton expects Buckland will continue the Downtown theme that they together will map out this year. Buckland serves on the Downtown Vision Inc. board and chaired it 2014-16.

Peyton said Haskell Chairman and CEO Steve Halverson, a former chair of the civic council, facilitated the retreat. 

The civic council is a private organization of area business and community leaders whose mission is “to shape and define Jacksonville’s future as a premier national and international city with a thriving economy, vibrant civic, cultural and educational institutions, and a high quality of life for all who call it home.”

Immediate past Chair Ed Burr told the Meninak Club of Jacksonville last week that the council is re-engaging its Northbank Redevelopment Task Force to examine the Downtown Investment Authority’s power, structure and master plan, also with the goal to create a plan that transcends elected leadership terms.

Peyton said the chamber and civic council will work in tandem. There is leadership and membership crossover.

“We all share similar goals. Anything we would do would be in lockstep,” he said.

Peyton envisions the chamber establishing a Downtown compact or guiding principle statement that defines priorities, “and we could be the keeper of the flame for these items. We’ll own that.”

Peyton also sees the efforts as encouraging more residents and jobs Downtown.

The chamber also could influence elected leaders to follow those priorities, he said.

“When someone wants to run for office and is looking for chamber support, ‘This is what’s important. These are the things we think are important for the city. Can you support these?’ That’s the litmus test, really, so we have the continuity,” he said.

That extends into the term of the elected officials, “reminding them after they’re in office they were supportive of these things because some of the things that need to happen are pretty bold and pretty expensive.”

Peyton provided examples.

“I think we need a stronger policy position on public buildings on the river. Do we want to have that land and those buildings off the tax rolls?” he asked, referring to the former Duval County Courthouse and City Hall Annex. He also mentioned the Pre-Trial Detention Facility, which is the Duval County jail and sits a block from the St. Johns River.

‘An upward swing’

Peyton isn’t the first former Jacksonville mayor to chair the chamber. Delaney led the organization in 2015. 

Peyton also knows that instead of eight years as mayor, he has one year to lead the chamber.

“There’s not going to be any radical transformation in that period of time, but I think we can establish some guiding fundamental principles that the chamber can get behind that we can carry through time beyond various administrations,” he said.

Peyton also must balance leadership of the 3,500-employee diversified Gate Petroleum Co., which was founded by his father, Herbert Peyton, in 1960 and operates in eight states.

“It’s only 12 months,” he said. “We have a lot going on at Gate and so I’ll have to work through it.”

Peyton gave shout-outs to Chamber President and CEO Daniel Davis and JAXUSA Partnership President Jerry Mallot, having worked with both as mayor.

Davis served on City Council from 2003 to 2010 and then in the state House of Representatives from 2010 to 2014. He was council president in 2007-08.

Mallot has led economic development at the chamber since 1994.

“I wasn’t lucky enough to serve during a strong economy, so to me, to be involved at a time when things really seem to be turning the corner and on an upward swing is exciting,” Peyton said.

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