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Jax Daily Record Friday, Aug. 5, 201612:00 PM EST

Lack of confidence from council puts Friends of Hemming Park in jeopardy

by: David Chapman

Bill Prescott took a walk through Hemming Park on Thursday morning, not long after the latest sit-down with city officials to discuss the future of the park and the nonprofit that’s operated the Downtown venue for nearly two years.

There have been a lot of those sit-downs recently.

Last week, a special committee met to talk about the Friends of Hemming Park and its short- and long-term funding along with the future of the park.

On Monday, a council committee approved $150,000 for the group to ensure it survives through Oct. 1. Then Wednesday, another committee balked at that idea and deferred the issue.

As one council member said Thursday, that might have been the best course of action. Based on the tone and the comments at that meeting, it would have “gone down in flames,” said Bill Gulliford.

Without council confidence, Friends won’t receive $250,000 to run the park next year. Without council confidence, Friends won’t even receive the $150,000 needed to make it through the month.

“Hemming Park is in limbo right now,” said Prescott, who this week stepped down from the Friends board to become interim CEO after a reorganization.

Changes announced Monday came after former CEO Vince Cavin resigned, weeks after an audit opened the floodgates for council to scrutinize how the nonprofit spent its $1 million operating contract.

The white-knuckled approach has led to restrictions on how Friends can spend the short-term money for August and September — if the full council goes that far.

On Thursday, a meeting among Friends leadership, council members and Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration hammered out details. Friends likely won’t be receiving the full $150,000 anymore.

Instead, nearly $75,000 targeted for a park restaurant but used by Friends for operating expenses will stay in council’s hands for now.

That money is part of a $100,000 grant from Southwest Airlines.

The money, along with $11,000 more, was planned by the nonprofit for build-out and operation of a park kiosk to be run by Black Sheep, a popular Riverside restaurant.

The latter portion went to JEA for utility work, but it is being refunded.

However, despite some initial work performed, the project has never been in proper position to proceed because there was no contract between Black Sheep and the city, which owns the park.

Even if such a deal was in place, it would be in trouble anyway. Costs have risen to the point where the shipping-container kiosk needs in excess of $170,000 in public funding to make it happen.

Black Sheep owner Jonathan Insetta did not return a call or emails for comment since Wednesday.

Prescott said he saw the containers Wednesday with hopes the Friends’ grant and capital from Black Sheep officials could make something work.

“There’s no way that can happen,” Prescott told city officials at the Thursday meeting.

He wants to talk to Southwest to determine what else, if anything, would be acceptable for the nearly $75,000. If not, the money would be returned.

Sam Mousa, Curry’s chief administrative officer, said the kiosk project was “too scattered at the moment to even discuss.”

Wayne Wood, Friends board president, agreed with the comment. Later, Wood said the project was not dead and the delay will help the parties regroup.

With council’s decision on possibly locking that funding, though, it’s a decision no longer in Friends’ hands.

As for the other $75,000 that would be used for operations, there’s no certainty to that, either.

Prescott in recent days has reworked the Friends budget and arrived at needing about $30,000 each for August and September. That’s caused even more possible pinching from budget folks who question whether the $75,000 should be trimmed accordingly.

With council not expected to pull the Hemming bill for a vote Tuesday, Prescott has been asked for even greater detail on expenses in preparation for another Hemming meeting next week.

One expense Friends would like to keep: Cavin’s expected $5,000 or so in payroll.

Prescott said the money would be used to hire armed security and additional ambassadors. Safer and cleaner have been two consistent calls from council members about the park.

Some of those changes are being done with a simple rearrangement. On Wednesday, Friends placed white plastic fencing and planters along a waist-high wall to discourage “congregators” from loitering in sitting areas.

Prescott said the children’s area will be shifted closer to Laura and Adams streets for better visibility and proximity to the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville.

Yet, even with the changes to leadership, budget and approach, it may not be enough for the Friends long-term.

Council Vice President John Crescimbeni continues his push for a requests for proposals for park operators and to “rethink this thing.”

He went a step further Thursday, suggesting the city maybe keep the $75,000 slated for Friends operations, fencing the park off and reopening it when the Duval Street entrance at City Hall re-opens. That’s expected to be mid-January at the latest.

Crescimbeni also asked the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department to provide a proposal for what it could do with similar funding that was provided to Friends of Hemming Park. The department submitted the list last week.

During Wednesday’s Finance Committee, council members Aaron Bowman and Matt Schellenberg also voiced opposition to providing the group any more money.

Prescott and Wood continue to believe in the Friends effort. Prescott points to recent additions of volunteers Michelle Barth and Suzanne Jenkins as assets who can help the park with fundraising and planning, respectively.

And Prescott believes in his new role and with more focus from the Friends, the financial mistakes of the past won’t be repeated.

Wood told officials Thursday that Friends admits to those mistakes and understands what it takes to make the park great.

It’s frustrating, he said, when confidence is undermined just as the group is “about to hit a home run.”

Whether it is even allowed to step back up to the plate and swing again will be determined in the next few weeks.

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