“We were talking to people who could literally invest hundreds of millions into our Downtown,” Curry says.
Last week, Mayor Lenny Curry and Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa joined Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan on his private jet to visit cities where Curry said “private investors have worked with the local government to spur downtown growth.”
The 36-hour journey took Curry to Kansas City, St. Louis and Baltimore, all places that he said “understood the need to form public-private partnerships with investors.”
“We were talking to people who could literally invest hundreds of millions into our Downtown,” said Curry, who declined to identify those people.
“But they need to know that we’re serious about this and that projects won’t be hung up on some political debate that’s going to take a decade to work out.”
The secretive nature of the trip and the possible ethical lines it could have crossed took prominence over the reason Curry went in the first place.
The mayor isn’t allowed to accept gifts valued more than $100 from anyone lobbying or doing business with the city. A gift in this case would be the plane fare on Khan’s private jet.
His office maintains there was no conflict of interest.
Curry said he took the trip as an opportunity to see how other cities have turned inactive downtown areas, like the Shipyards, into thriving sports and entertainment districts.
Khan won the right to develop the riverfront Shipyards and Metro Park in April, and has the better part of a year to come forward with a deal to the city.
Although he wouldn’t get into specifics, Curry said he wants to make clear to outside investors that as mayor he’s “committed, can build rapport and gain support from a city council to move deals ahead that require a substantial public-private partnership.”
Jaguars and Iguana Investments President Mark Lamping, who also took the trip, knows about forming public-private partnerships, including in St. Louis.
Before joining the Jaguars, Lamping spent 13 years as president of the St. Louis Cardinals where he was said to be instrumental in bringing the team’s Busch Stadium and surrounding entertainment district to life.
After that, Lamping oversaw construction of MetLife Stadium, the $1.6 billion home of the NFL New York Jets and Giants, in New Jersey.
Curry has shown the ability to make workable deals with Khan’s companies, including a $90 million project the city cost split with the Jaguars to enhance EverBank Field.
The latest round of upgrades, which are a new amphitheater and indoor practice facility along with a revamp to the publicly-owned stadium’s club areas, is being paid for with roughly $45 million from bed taxes the city collects from guests staying at local hotels, and private capital from the Jaguars.
It’s the second such deal between the city and the team since 2013.
Any pending agreement to develop the Shipyards also will include a hefty investment in infrastructure from the city, to complement Khan’s vision.
Curry said he wanted to “get an idea of what concepts they’re thinking about” and that it’s in the early stages.
“We’ll work out a development agreement in the near term,” Curry said.
His latest capital improvement budget includes big Downtown investments, including tearing down the old City Hall and Duval County Courthouse buildings, property just west of the Shipyards on Bay Street.
He said the demolition sends a clear signal to developers that the city is prepared to talk.
“If they see that deals can’t get done here, they’ll take their money elsewhere, where they know they can make them happen.”
Boyer wants more focus on natural assets
Council member Lori Boyer said she believes the Jacksonville metro area suffers from a lack of identity which some consider the reason the city and surrounding areas don’t see as much tourism as other metro areas in the state.
At a roundtable discussion Friday organized by JAXUSA Partnership, the economic development arm of the JAX Chamber, Boyer discussed the need to invest and promote the area’s natural resources, “to get people to take that exit on I-95 and not just drive past us.”
Boyer joined Putnam County Commissioner Chip Laibl and Clay County Commissioner Diane Hutchings at the event at the University of North Florida.
The discussion revolved around the area’s striking amount of natural resources and history and the lack of a unified branding initiative to promote its assets.
“We have an opportunity to change the way we sell this area to tourists,” Boyer said. “That means more people staying at local hotels, eating at local restaurants and spending money here instead.”
While the three agreed that a singular message is needed, there was little talk about what that message could be, outside of a presentation by Will Ketchum of TruJax.
Ketchum said TruJax’s vision for the area surrounds “the water life,” a branding exercise that markets the area’s aquatic resources to potential tourists.
TruJax describes itself as a “collective, community process” working to define the area’s “DNA” to create a “clearer understanding of Jacksonville.”
Boyer has spent considerable time on council trying to promote riverfront activation Downtown, most recently with projects she calls “nodes” or points of interest at areas along the Northbank and Southbank Riverwalks.
The first two projects, one near the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts and another at Friendship Fountain, already are in the works.
She said council members need to make it clear to private investors interested in riverfront development “that they need to include room for extending the Riverwalk or have something in there for the public when they come to make a deal.”