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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jan. 31, 201805:40 AM EST

John Peyton on the issues

Where the JAX Chamber Chair stands on some of the questions facing Downtown.

John Peyton, 2018 chairman of the JAX Chamber, has made continuing the momentum he sees in Downtown redevelopment a priority in his year at the helm. Here is where the former Jacksonville mayor believes are top priorities for the urban core:

The Downtown Investment Authority

According to Peyton, “we have to talk about the governance structure for how we develop Downtown. DIA is fundamental to that.”

He called DIA Executive Director Aundra Wallace  “best in class” and said the administration and City Council show confidence in the authority’s leadership.

“The question is at what level should we invest and I would argue that we probably could demonstrate strong returns on investment by investing more,” Peyton said.

“It’s about measured return and there are a lot of opportunities where I think with a little assistance, Aundra and his team could make a pretty big difference and produce a return for the taxpayer in the Downtown area that you couldn’t replicate anywhere else,” he said.

Downtown, he said already has infrastructure in place.

“It’s advantageous to the taxpayer when we backfill the urban core,” he said, adding that trends show millennials want to be part of an urban environment.

City Council now signs off on DIA projects, which Jacksonville Civic Council immediate past Chair Ed Burr said last week can delay and discourage private investment.

“I respect the fact that City Council wants to have a say because they’re on the ballot. They’re accountable to the taxpayers for how we spend taxpayer money,” Peyton said.

“But I also understand and appreciate the value to developers and to the marketplace when you’re able to move quickly, when you can prove return. It’s a delicate balance,” he said.

In an ideal world, he said, “you’d want DIA to have more funding and more autonomy.”

Convention center

The DIA intends to issue a Notice of Disposition, which is a Request for Proposals, to develop a convention center complex at the site of the former courthouse and annex along East Bay Street next to the 951-room Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront hotel.

The exhibit hall would be more than twice as large as the exhibit space at the Prime Osborn Convention Center on the western edge of Downtown in LaVilla.

“If it’s the collective judgment of the chamber that if we’re going to be in the convention center business, it makes sense for it to be next to a 900-room hotel on the river, which is our greatest asset and which guests enjoy,” Peyton said.

He also said it would be near the Bay Street restaurants and bars and the entertainment and sports complex envisioned along the riverfront near EverBank Field.

Asked whether a convention center would be a public building on riverfront land, Peyton said it would fit within the entertainment district and showcase the river for guests. “You have to think strategically about what is the highest and best use,” he said.

Peyton also said the project could be led by a private investor in partnership with the city.

Duval County jail

Just as Burr cited the jail as a function that doesn’t need to be near the riverfront, Peyton said he would like it to be moved, “but I think we have to get our useful life out of that building.”

Officially the John E. Goode Pre-Trial Detention Facility, the 12-story jail was called state-of-the-art when it opened in April 1991 with an inmate capacity of 2,189.

“Having a high-rise jail is a very inefficient way to operate, so I think if you could wave a wand, you wouldn’t build it high. You’d build it low,” Peyton said.

A low-rise jail implies new construction, and if that happens, Peyton would like to see it built near interstates and railroads.

The former Jacksonville Transportation Authority board member and 1999 JTA chairman suggests land in the area of the JTA operations campus at 100 N. Myrtle Ave.

“You’ve got I-10 on one side, you’ve got I-95 on the other side and you’ve got the railroad going right through it,” he said. “But you don’t have the river.”

Jacksonville Landing

Peyton said the board retreat consensus about the 31-year-old Jacksonville Landing along the Northbank Riverwalk was that it “does not reflect the quality that we would like to see in our Downtown environment and I think it’s an unfortunate story and it needs a new start.”

Sleiman Enterprises owns the building with a lease on the city-owned land through 2056. Peyton and Sleiman President Toney Sleiman sparred during Peyton’s term in office.

Sleiman and the city are in litigation over the Landing. Sleiman, through Jacksonville Landing Investments LLC, filed suit in November alleging the city is in breach of its contract and refuses to fulfill its obligations.

The city responded in December with a motion to dismiss saying JLI is in breach of its lease “due to its obvious failure” to operate the Landing as a “first-class retail facility.”

The case is in Circuit Court.

“Status quo is not working for anybody. I don’t think the owner is happy with the occupancy rate. I don’t think the city is happy with the use, and I don’t think our citizenry are pleased and want to go there,” Peyton said.

“I think we all have to take a deep breath and talk about the next chapter.”

Peyton said that he hopes the city and Sleiman “will at some point come to an agreement to abandon the status quo.”

Peyton’s ideas range from turning the property into a park or a mixed-use development or opening it and using it as flex space for special events. 

He emphasized “that’s for others to decide, but the only thing I know for sure is status quo with the Landing is not working for anybody.”

Asked whether eminent domain was a possibility, Peyton said he was not close enough to the lease. “I have confidence the mayor and his team are evaluating all options to find a way to improve it,” he said.

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