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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jun. 12, 200912:00 PM EST

JEDC hears plan for new, improved Metropolitan Park

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

The Jacksonville Economic Development Commission got a close look at the conceptual design for improvements to Metropolitan Park at its meeting Thursday.

JEDC Executive Director Ron Barton made the presentation and talked about the built-in advantages of the park.

“It’s hard to find 32 acres for a waterfront park with an amphitheater setting,” he said. “It’s a great location, but the existing park application has deficiencies.”

He then added that with a few modifications to the site and some additions to make it more engaging, “Our waterfront parks should be our premier parks and Metropolitan Park has the potential to be a catalyst for change Downtown.”

Barton then outlined the conceptual changes and described the new design as “passive and flexible.” The biggest change the public will notice upon arrival is a new entrance that leads into a plaza between the amphitheater area and what is now known as “Kids Kampus.” Park offices, restrooms and ticket booths for events with paid admission will be located at the entrance. It will be at the foot of an elevated crosswalk that will connect Metropolitan park with the parking lots adjacent to Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.

Water features and improved landscaping are also on the conceptual drawings, but Barton said, “The intent is not to build a Cummer Gardens atmosphere.”

Kids Kampus will receive the most major facelift in the project. The jungle gyms won’t be removed, said Barton, because they are the most popular feature in any children’s play area. But a climbing wall will be added as well as an interactive water feature in front of the Fire Museum and a carousel.

Of the museum Barton said, “It’s the oldest firehouse in the city and it was relocated to Metropolitan Park. Now it’s an afterthought, but it should be a central feature of the area.”

The topography of the amphitheater section of the park will be changed to make the slope more gentle and a landscaped berm with a retaining wall is also part of the plan.

The plan is “pretty minimalist,” Barton concluded and said it’s “less about the amphitheater and more about the rest of the park.”

When asked about the cost of the improvements and sources of funding, Barton said while it’s impossible to quote a firm price for the project until the design is finalized, he estimated the work can be done for $25-$30 million. About $18 million is available from project budgets that have already been approved but have surplus funds.

Another question was whether, in view of the current economy, now is the right time to pursue a park project of this financial magnitude.

Barton pointed out that Mayor John Peyton has identified improvements to Metropolitan Park as a priority and added, “Despite the adverse economy, the City can’t stop and go into breakdown mode. We have to continue to do things that make the community better.”

Barton said other advantages to starting the Metropolitan Park improvement project early next year include a favorable bid environment and the project will put people to work.

“We have to do things to position Jacksonville to come out of this recession more favorably than other communities. We have to be judicious, but we have to understand great cities need to invest in themselves,” he concluded.

In other JEDC business, a Qualified Target Industry (QTI) tax refund for the expansion of Whertec, Inc. was unanimously approved by the commissioners.

The company fabricates heat-treated metal plates and thermal coatings for boilers and other pressurized vessels. The tax credit will allow Whertec to move its production and warehouse facility from Dothan, Ala. to Hammond Boulevard in West Jacksonville.

The relocation will create 81 new, full-time jobs at an average wage of $45,000 plus benefits, which exceeds 115 percent of the state average.

The company also will invest more than $4 million to acquire and renovate an existing 32,000 square-foot building and purchase additional machinery and equipment.

The public investment via the QTI would be $3,000 per job not to exceed $243,000, with the State of Florida contributing 80 percent up to $194,400 and the City contributing the balance not to exceed $48,600. The tax credit would be realized by Whertec over a four-year period and requires performance on the company’s part in terms of the jobs created.

The company was founded in 1996 and does business in the United States and Canada, said Whertec CEO Pete Castiglione. The current facility in Alabama is 10,000 square feet and that’s becoming an issue.

“We’re projecting 38 percent growth in 2009,” said Castiglione. “This move will allow us to expand.”

The proposed QTI refund recommendation now goes to City Council for approval.

The conceptual design of the new Metropolitan Park. The current estimate for the modifications, additions and enhancements is in the range of $25-$30 million.

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