by Max Marbut
When Council member Warren Jones opened a meeting Wednesday afternoon with members of the NU Beta Sigma chapter of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, their consultant on the Genovar’s Hall preservation project, representatives from the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, the mayor’s office, Planning Department and Code Enforcement, the first thing he said was he was surprised the meeting was even taking place.
“I never thought this issue would still be around,” said Jones.
In 1998 during his previous service on Council, Jones sponsored a bill that transferred a building at the corner of Jefferson and Ashley streets in LaVilla from the City to the fraternity, whose members planned to raise money to restore the site to its original glory. It was built in 1895 and was one of the few structures that was not destroyed during the Great Fire of 1901.
It is also part of Jacksonville’s African-American heritage and history.
In the 1940s, Genovar’s Hall was one of the city’s hottest night spots where famous musicians including Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie and Billie Holiday performed. Ray Charles lived around the corner when he moved here from St. Augustine and Genovar’s Hall is described in one historical account from the era as being located directly across the street from “Jacksonville’s finest brothel.”
The two-story, 8,000 square foot building was constructed by a Minorcan descendent, Sebastian Genovar, and was at one time the site of Finklestein’s pawn shop. It was later home to African-American-owned businesses including the Wynn Hotel and the Lenape tavern.
The original plan was to declare the property as surplus and convey it to Phi Beta Sigma, which would use a $200,000 community development block grant from the City to kickstart the project. Ideally, the first floor would be transformed into a restaurant and bar-based jazz club. The second floor would house a children’s education center, an art gallery and a museum dedicated to the civil rights movement.
In addition, three “shotgun” houses were saved from demolition during the Ed Austin administration’s “River City Renaissance” and moved to an adjacent lot south of Genovar’s Hall to become part of a historic complex that would show what life in LaVilla was like in the mid-20th century.
The key to the plan working was for the fraternity to raise $2.5 million to complete the restoration of the building and the subsequent mixed-use development.
The fraternity gutted the bottom floor and stabilized the structure, but that’s where the money – and progress – ended.
Jones called the meeting this week after sponsoring a bill that was approved Aug. 28 to give Phi Beta Sigma yet another extension in order to get the project moving again. It is the latest in a series of extensions that Council has granted since 2003.
“It’s a tough project,” said Ron Barton, JEDC executive director, who continued, “Frankly, we’re very sympathetic. Council made a policy decision to preserve the structure and we want a successful project, but it’s important to define a business plan for the end-use of the building. There has to be something that would sustain the facility.”
In 2006, Council member Reggie Fullwood proposed and Council approved allocation of $100,000 from District 9 discretionary funds for the project. Attorney Reginald Estell Jr., a past president of Phi Beta Sigma, said use of the funds is limited to maintaining the building and property to conform with the City’s building codes. He thinks a feasibility study should be performed to determine the new direction of the project and estimated the cost at $65,000.
“A feasibility study is the missing piece of the puzzle,” he said. “We have looked at different sources of funding, but not having a study has been a roadblock. We’ve used the City funds to improve the exterior of the building, but it hasn’t been enough to attract any funding.”
Barton commented, “These types of facilities are very difficult when it comes to capturing cash flow. There must be private contributions because the City can’t cover the burden. We need to define the elements of success, knowing we might not be able to achieve them.”
Ed Hayes, a consultant who is working with the fraternity on the project, made the point that “history means a lot” and said he feels there is enough funding available in the community to help with the Genovar’s Hall project if it can be properly presented.
“There was $415 million distributed by private foundations last year, so we know the money is there. The question is if the will is there,” said Hayes, who suggested the renovation might qualify for state or federal grants in view of its connection with the African-American community.
Joel McEachin, the City’s principal planner for historic preservation, said that would mean Genovar’s Hall would be competing with other special category grant applicants and added, “Out of 150 projects proposed last year, the state funded only 10.” McEachin did agree, however, that having a feasibility study would put the project in a better position to compete.
Jones said time is of the essence since the City has notified Phi Beta Sigma of their default and is now seeking to secure ownership and possession.
The latest extension of the agreement included a deadline of 120 calendar days after Aug. 28 for the parties to mediate differences before the property reverts to the City. He also pointed out the estimated project cost of $2.5 million is in 2007 dollars and “2007 is almost over.”
Jones said he would work with the mayor’s office to determine if the discretionary funds that are still available could be used to pay for the study or if some other means might be considered.
Barton assured the fraternity the City is ready and willing to work with them to make the restoration happen if it is feasible but cautioned, “This is a humongous burden. You have to decide if you want to take it on.”
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