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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Feb. 8, 201805:38 AM EST

Give DIA more power? Plan could be tough sell

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Turning DIA into an independent agency could speed Downtown development, but take control away from elected leaders.
by: David Cawton Staff Writer

Some City Council members are not sold on the suggestion made by former Jacksonville Civic Council Chair Ed Burr that the Downtown Investment Authority should be more of an independent agency, giving it the autonomy to make decisions outside of the council approval process.

The decision to alter the authority’s governing structure could all but halt the council’s ability to vote on and vet projects and economic development deals the DIA does or doesn’t approve.

“I’m 100 percent for government always being involved,” said council member Reggie Brown who serves on the council Finance Committee.

“We’ve lost control before,” he said, referring to the former Jacksonville Economic Development Commision, which he said didn’t have enough accountability.

“At this time, for us to create another independent authority, I wouldn’t support that,” he said.

Speaking to the Meninak Club of Jacksonville, Burr told the group that the DIA — a body the Civic Council helped develop — needs more authority, funding and independence from the City Council if it’s going to be successful.

The group of influential business and community leaders has re-engaged its Downtown task force and plans to push hard to reshape the DIA.

At the January meeting, Burr said the approval process for Downtown projects is too long and discourages investors from bringing their ideas and money to Jacksonville.

Burr said that private investors who need public funding or approvals “will spend a year dealing with DIA.”

“Then they have to go across the street and get 10 votes from the City Council,” he said.

City Council President Anna Lopez Brosche said that while she agrees with the concept of more autonomy, she wants more information about how the DIA compares to the city’s independent authorities, like JEA.

She said she’d also like time to compare the DIA to the former Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and learn why it was dismantled.

“I’m not for or against what they’re saying,” Brosche said. “I like independence, but I’d have to understand why it was set up the way it was set up in the first place.”

The creation of the DIA was led by Mayor Alvin Brown in 2012 when he split the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and its activities into two bodies.

The DIA handles development projects within the Downtown Community Redevelopment Areas on the Northbank and Southbank and the Office of Economic Development negotiates deals for the rest of Duval County.

At the time, Brown cited the need for a dedicated organization “that would transcend administrations and city councils,” as one reason for the DIA’s creation.

Five members of the DIA board are selected by the mayor and four are chosen by the council president. Members must be approved by 10 of the 19 council members and they serve two-year terms.

Brosche said the council’s involvement in the DIA’s decision-making process is a delicate balance.

“I want to make sure we’re making smart decisions for the citizens, but I also want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing for developing Jacksonville,” she said.

Garrett Dennis, who chairs the council Finance Committee, said he would be cautious when it comes to creating another independent authority.

“It’s definitely something I want to learn more about,” Dennis said.

One reason for the suggestion, according to Burr, is that turnover in the mayor’s office and council hinders the agency’s ability to implement its master plan for Downtown.

“I hear them,” Dennis said. “But having an agency that’s able to make those decisions outside of the elected body, (City Council), could create the opposite effect of what they’re talking about.”

Dennis said he was hesitant to “take the power away from the people.”

“Then you’re left with an unelected group with the power to rule over this little ‘Kingdom of Downtown’,” he said.

Former Mayor John Peyton, the 2018 JAX Chamber chair, made a recommendation similar to Burr’s in an interview in January, saying the DIA needs more money and independence for a master plan to succeed.

“The tendency has been for every mayor and every administration to kind of redefine what the plan is,” he said.

For the 2017-18 fiscal year, the DIA has a budget of about $1.2 million, 0.1 percent of the $1.2 billion overall city budget.

Mayor Lenny Curry said recently he’s read about the proposals made by Burr and Peyton, but that he didn’t know the specifics.

“What I can tell you is we’re getting things done in Downtown Jacksonville,” Curry said. “I’m proud of my administration but I also recognize their concern about mayoral positions changing.”

Curry said he didn’t want to comment further, other than to say he believes the DIA and CEO Aundra Wallace have “worked extremely hard to make the progress they’ve made.”

“I’m always open to hearing ideas that will make Downtown development quicker, easier and more attractive to capital,” he said.

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