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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Aug. 20, 201412:00 PM EST

Hemming Plaza contract heads to full council after changes made

by: David Chapman

Fixing Hemming Plaza, making it a jewel of Downtown and establishing it as an urban destination has been talked about for years.

City Council is on the brink of the latest attempt to transform the park after a committee Tuesday approved $1 million for a nonprofit to operate and program the one-square-block Downtown plaza.

The 8-1 vote by the council Finance Committee was the final step needed before a full vote by council next week. It passed several other committees two weeks ago, but failed at finance after a 4-4 vote.

The $1 million in public money comprises $800,000 from the Downtown Investment Authority and $200,000 from the city Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.

Council member Matt Schellenberg was the lone vote against the bill Tuesday. He has long said he has wanted to see the Downtown Investment Authority’s plan for Downtown before investing money. He attempted to pass an amendment to the bill that would have required Friends of Hemming Park, the nonprofit, to raise $250,000 in its first six months of operation. The group has said it would do that, but over a year.

While he was council president last year, Bill Gulliford created an ad hoc committee to review the park and said Tuesday it was time to “quit fooling around” with the project.

“They’ve got one chance and one chance only to make this work,” he said.

If the nonprofit doesn’t end up self-sustaining, he said that would be a “bigger problem” but it was time for council to act on the bill. If it didn’t pass, he suggested upgrading the back entrance to City Hall to spare visitors a walk through the park that’s been considered an eyesore.

“It’s time to make the center of our city an attractive component,” he said.

There were many amendments to the bill Tuesday.

Several members objected to the idea that one longtime Hemming Plaza vendor who sells hot dogs could be kicked out. Bill Prescott, a member of the nonprofit’s board, said the intent wasn’t to kick anybody out.

Kim Daniels said she couldn’t proceed until the matter was addressed. Reggie Brown was another one who wanted assurances.

“Intentions don’t really pan out well for everybody,” he said.

Provisions were approved that any valid vending permit can be renewed.

In-kind donations also won’t count toward fundraising performance for the nonprofit after another amendment.

And the board could have two additional non-voting members, after the group approved having a council and Downtown Investment Authority member added.

Friends of Hemming Park is in the process of hiring an executive director and would add several more staff members. If passed, the contract would end Sept. 30, 2017, with the possibility for two one-year renewals.

The full council will vote on the bill Aug. 27, a day later than normal because of primary elections.

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