by Max Marbut
Downtown and its development is a hot topic of conversation and nowhere is that more true than on the Web site Metrojacksonville.com.
“It’s all about Downtown and the surrounding areas like Springfield,” said Steve Congro, one of the site’s founders. He “met” fellow urban development advocates Dan Herbin, Ennis Davis and Kevin Connor on an on-line forum a couple of years ago.
Pretty soon, Metrojacksonville.com was on-line and the core group was meeting about once a week to discuss issues in person rather than over the Internet. One of their meetings was held at Boomtown restaurant at Hemming Plaza, where they met Stephen Dare, who soon joined the Web site group.
Things really ramped up for the Web site after a town meeting in March 2006 during which the group invited anyone who was interested in Downtown’s future to attend and share their thoughts. It was standing-room-only in the Council Chambers that night, including developers Toney Sleiman and Cameron Kuhn, architect Tri Vu, representatives from the Pioneers-4-Jax Downtown organization and Metrojacksonville.com.
That turnout and input led to a series of meetings chaired by former Dist. 4 Council member Suzanne Jenkins that were attended regularly by Congro and Dare. The meetings led to changes in the parking regulations at Downtown’s meters and other initiatives.
Davis earned a degree in architecture from Florida A&M University and said that was where he developed an understanding of urban components and how they work together.
“In college, architecture students would travel to cities like Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Philadelphia, St. Augustine and Washington, D.C. We would be dropped off with with a hotel reservation and no transportation,” said Davis. “We had to find our way around and it was a great way to learn about how cities work”.
After graduation and before moving to Jacksonville in 2003, Davis lived in Lakeland and was an advocate of that city’s Downtown development. He said as soon as he arrived, he could tell Downtown was ready to begin a revival based on what was happening a few blocks north of the urban core.
“I saw what was happening in Springfield. I had seen the same thing happening in other cities,” he said. “I was also attracted to Downtown’s architecture because it reminds me so much of what you see in other Southern cities,” he said and added the web site makes it possible to get people interested in the topic of Downtown and involved in its future.
“The site is how we get out information. It’s also a way to discover what’s going on in the community of people who care about Downtown and want it to get better.”
Herbin said the site is important because it provides a vehicle for discussion and debate.
“We will keep covering the issues and getting more people involved, whether or not they agree with us. We feel it’s important to be able to provide a forum for discussion,” said Herbin who said the Web Site currently has more than 600 members.
“We get the general spectrum of how the community feels about issues involving Downtown and I really think the dark days are behind us,” said Davis.
“The site is just one tool the group has. The goal is the betterment of Downtown,” said Congro.
Involving as many people in the discussion and providing information is another of the site’s missions, said Dare.
“We give the citizens of Jacksonville a forum for activism. So many of the City’s meetings about Downtown planning and development are held during the day when most people can’t attend because they have jobs,” said Dare. “We (Metrojacksonville.com members) make the time to go to a lot of those official meetings and report on what happens. Then people who weren’t able to attend the meetings can offer their input and keep the dialogue going.
“The more people that are talking about Downtown and its issues, the more power an idea can have.”
One of the issues that has created a great deal of discussion is the future of mass transit for Downtown and surrounding areas. The choice between a bus-based rapid transit system and a light-rail system has led to thousands of comments from the site’s administrators and members. Metrojacksonville.com has made it clear the people behind the Web site are behind building a rail system to move people around the city.
That specific area of advocacy got the attention of the First Coast Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA), which has chosen Metrojacksonville.com to receive the organization’s 2008 Excellence in Media Award.
“The planning community in general and the First Coast APA in particular support light rail over buses for mass transit in most cases including Jacksonville,” said Mark David Major, principal at Major Planning, LLC and the chair of the First Coast APA awards committee.
“The committee felt Metrojacksonville.com had for the past year more than any other media in the market advanced the discussion about public transit and the advantages of rail,” he added.
Metrojacksonville.com will receive its award at the First Coast APA Summer Luncheon June 6 at the University of North Florida.