In the shadows of the Arlington Expressway overpass and EverBank Field, the A. Philip Randolph Boulevard commercial corridor is largely empty and overlooked.
The same goes for the historic Eastside neighborhoods that surround it, except when residents turn their yards and driveways into parking lots for nearby sporting events and concerts.
The community that produced Olympic gold medalist and NFL player Bob Hayes, philanthropist and community leader Eartha White, and the boulevard’s civil rights and labor leader namesake is hurting.
“Back in the day, this area was thriving. Now, it is mostly forgotten,” said Dana Miller, a barber and community activist.
That’s about to change, albeit modestly in the beginning.
After unveiling its 10-year strategic plan in February, the nonprofit Groundwork Jacksonville announced Friday the Jacksonville Public Market will open this fall.
The market along A. Philip Randolph Boulevard, between Albert and Oakley streets, will be a destination for people seeking healthy food, local artisanship and services, live entertainment, educational workshops and community spirit, organizers say. As many as 100 vendors are expected.
Initially, the market will be open only on the weekends of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ home football games.
“We were going to do the whole three quarters of a mile from the expressway to First Street, but decided to start small and grow,” said Miller, who volunteers with Groundwork Jacksonville. “The public market may not seem like a big thing, but just watch and see. It’s going to be a game-changer.”
Groundwork Jacksonville’s unfunded long-term vision is to recreate the “Emerald Necklace” by redeveloping contaminated brownfield sites and reconnecting the city’s neglected urban parks and neighborhoods.
The plans call for a walkway to connect the Northbank to A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and follow Hogans Creek to the S-Line Rail Trail in north Springfield. Ultimately, the trail would connect McCoys Creek and Unity Plaza.
The organization’s CEO, Dawn Emerick, says the market’s opening will serve as both a symbolic and real indication that the latest historic Eastside revitalization plan won’t sit on the shelf unopened.
“I think it sends a signal to residents on the other side of the expressway that they matter and that they should have equal access to all of the assets of Jacksonville like the rest of us,” Emerick said.
The Emerald Necklace project is the centerpiece of Groundwork Jacksonville’s partnership with the U.S. National Parks Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the city.
Cities throughout the United States, including Atlanta and Boston, have undertaken similar efforts to promote physical activity and close the gap in health and financial disparities through economic development along beltway trail systems.
Groundwork Jacksonville’s roots began with a 2012 Historic Eastside/Springfield Community Quality of Life Plan developed by Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC).
The plan underscores the importance of proximity to healthy foods, farmers markets, community gardens and grocery stores in communities striving to overcome neglect.
The market’s funding will come from grants, sponsorships, vendor fees and concessions. Wells Fargo and EverBank have jump-started the fundraising with $5,000 commitments.
“The exciting thing is that Groundwork Jacksonville is moving forward with the public market with so many partners,” said LISC Executive Director Janet Owens. “They recognize the importance of leveraging relationships and resources to make the market possible.”
Noting that last week’s announcement was a year in the making, Groundwork Jacksonville Program Manager Alyssa Bourgoyne said grassroots support and involvement from a steering committee of about a dozen other local residents and business owners have been crucial to the organization’s efforts.
Bourgoyne said by canvassing neighborhoods to gather information and support, local citizens are doing the “heavy lifting” for Groundwork Jacksonville.
“We would not have a Jacksonville Public Market coming if it weren’t for the steering committee,” she said.
The public market’s plans are to have villages with several themes: Children’s entrepreneur, farmer, artisan food, meat and seafood, art, vintage and grocery.
Applications for vendors and food truck, along with other information about the public market, are available at jacksonvillepublicmarket.com.
Miller, a 49-year-old father of four who grew up about a mile from his barbershop, says he senses the attitude of residents and businesses is already improving.
“By seeing what Groundwork Jacksonville is doing, by seeing that there are people who really care, I think there’s more hope in our neighborhood now,” he said.
Soon, Miller said, the automobile-parking cottage industry that surfaces on Jaguar game days will no longer be the neighborhood’s biggest economic engine.
And soon, the historic Eastside may be able to rival Avondale in terms of economic development and charm, he said.
“I can see not only visitors coming here like they do in Avondale, but locals walking out at night and going to restaurants and little theaters,” Miller said. “I think we’re on the brink of greatness — and I don’t think it’s going to take 10 years.”