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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Mar. 11, 201412:00 PM EST

Food trucks help Downtown when handled well

by: James F. Bailey Jr.

About 15 years ago, I was having dinner at a restaurant on the second floor of the Jacksonville Landing overlooking the river.

As I sat and ate, I watched as people on the dock waited for a water taxi to pick them up and take them to their destination.

We had several taxi services then competing to provide a ride on our beautiful river.

They had to be a Coast Guard-approved vessel and they needed a city-issued medallion to operate. However, there was no oversight on how they treated customers.

I immediately called Mayor John Delaney and described the fiasco that was taking place in front of me and the many people on the dock.

There were four licensed captained vessels racing to the dock get to the crowds so they could load up passengers, take them somewhere and then return for more passengers.

I watched as the competing captains yelled, argued and used their vessels to nudge their way to the designated space on the dock.

Convincing Mayor Delaney something needed to be done wasn’t the issue. He wanted a solution to provide citizens a reliable service and positive experience every day, no matter the weather or time.

The solution was a well-thought-out Request for Proposal that would give passengers the assurance they would get back to a destination, while protecting the captains’ interest by not allowing a service to run in and carry passengers only on football games, pocketing high fares and going home with the profits.

The result: Four companies replied to the RFP all understanding the need when passengers get on and pay, they know where they are going, where to get picked up, how long between stops and how late they can depend on a ride back to where they came from.

This was all done two years before the Super Bowl, so the contractor and city dock master could practice for the big game.

The result has been years of reliable service by Greg Samuels until he decided for various reasons it was time for him to retire.

When City Council member Reginald Brown called a public meeting to discuss the future of food trucks in Downtown Jacksonville, I immediately thought of that water taxi moment.

Not because the RFP was needed, but what we wanted people who came Downtown to experience.

Two weeks ago, we were in a Downtown Investment Authority meeting when our Chief Executive Officer Aundra Wallace said he needed to leave by 3 p.m. because of the meeting called by Council member Brown to discuss food trucks.

We immediately took a stance and voted in support of food trucks, with a caveat — when and where appropriate.

My first reaction was concern for what is commonly called the bricks-and-mortar restaurants and for the business owners who have been paying their dues and barely seeing a return on their investments in Downtown.

My second thought was why would we want to try to build a vibrant, exciting place without food trucks? They are fun, creative and useful.

But like water taxis, our first concern should be with our customers’ experience.

Can we utilize both to create an environment that will ensure they leave with a positive experience, have a variety of options and want to return for more?

Building that Downtown is going to take ambition, competition and cooperation to ensure the plan is to build on the experience, and give people an opportunity for a return on their investment.

I’ve watched restaurants come and go and go and go. Then there are others that are as comfortable in the office as they are in the kitchen.

Food trucks, like water taxis, are an enormous asset to our efforts to create a vibrant downtown.

The key to life for a restaurant is location, location, location. Downtown events and location of people change often. Food trucks are mobile and can move to hot spots every time events move.

Bricks-and-mortar restaurants pay rent every hour of every hot, cold, rainy or slow day.

If we run them off, what happens when times are slow and the food trucks decide to stay home? A Downtown dependent on mobile kitchens and no anchor or commitment to the effort can’t work.

The issue discussed at Brown’s meeting seemed to be more about what the definition of a food truck was and are they permitted. Not about how we implement a plan to use them.

This should be about the value to each other working together for an end goal of success.

It is unfair to create a definition and allow an individual city employee to interpret an application and issue a permit.

Right now, that city employee is doing his job issuing permits for the food trucks based on the city’s vague criteria. There is little thought given to where that truck is going to be located and how it might affect restaurants.

Why shouldn’t the fees for those permits and other food truck-related regulation go into a fund for Downtown? Perhaps it could be used for enhancing garbage pickup, making it better for restaurants.

Clearly there is a void. People don’t invest their hard-earned dollars if they don’t see a need. Bricks-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks are going to have to work together to fill that void. Food trucks are not the problem, but can be part of the solution.

As I have said before, Ben Carter at the St. Johns Town Center ensures success of his tenants by offering space that complements neighboring businesses. Creating an opportunity to succeed, not teeing them up for failure.

Filling the void Downtown will take bricks-and-mortar restaurants, as well as food trucks, hot dog stands, sandwich shops and high-end dining. All is needed if we are to build a sustainable neighborhood.

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(904) 356-2466

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