An outsider with an inside view. Or an insider with an outside view.
That was the duality Jake Gordon talked about Friday morning over a cup of coffee at Chamblin’s Uptown Bookstore & Café.
He was making those observations two blocks from the offices of Downtown Vision Inc., where he went to work as executive director for the first time this morning.
Formerly executive director of the Business Improvement District in Camden, N.J., Gordon has ties to North Florida through his wife, Dana, a University of Florida graduate who grew up in Gainesville.
The Gordons and their two children, Alex, 4, and Samantha, 2, traveled here at least four times a year to visit Dana’s parents.
The couple also lived in Atlantic Beach for eight months in 2007 before Gordon took the job with the Camden Special Services District.
Flying to Jacksonville in March to meet DVI’s board of directors and interview for the job brought a new insight.
“For me, going away and then coming back, it’s amazing how much more metropolitan Jacksonville has become. It’s more like a city,” he said.
Managing a Business Improvement District is a second career for Gordon.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he was attracted to the legal profession because he wanted to understand how rules are made and to be part of the process.
But after three years representing clients as a litigator in a large Los Angeles law firm, it was time for a different focus.
“I wanted to build something I could be proud of and cities always fascinated me,” Gordon said.
However, he said, “I’m always a lawyer. I’m negotiating and working within a set of rules.”
During the DVI interview process, Gordon spent a few days Downtown to soak up some of the ambiance of the 90 square blocks under the purview of the nonprofit Downtown advocacy organization.
He found duality there, as well — a neighborhood with the small-town appeal of running into people you know and the benefits of a major city.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” said Gordon, whose salary is $115,000.
One aspect that became clear to Gordon is how many groups, organizations and people have made the urban core a priority.
He plans to spend his first few months getting to know the players in the business, government and cultural communities.
“We have to make sure we’re all pulling in the same direction,” said Gordon. “Understanding the way everyone is working together is the first challenge for me.”
That’s on a 90-day timetable for Gordon.
Then comes evaluation of DVI’s current activities and role. He knows changes will be made and he’s realistic about the long-term view.
“It’s important for the executive director to look at the big picture. Change can be glacial, but little victories make a difference,” he said.
Gordon plans to encourage Downtown’s major corporate stakeholders to be more involved in programs and events, including contributing financially.
“We have to use funding from those institutions to make it a better place for economic development and bring a positive focus,” he said.
In Camden, property owners’ voluntary contributions make up the $1.3 million budget for that New Jersey city’s version of Downtown Vision.
In Jacksonville, property owners in a 90-block area in the urban core pay an additional 1.1 mills of property taxes to support the same size budget.
Gordon also secured a $5.8 million federal grant to create bike lanes in Camden, as well as a $180,000 grant to fund a study on the performance of the lanes.
He said during the interview process he would seek grants from government and private entities for DVI.
People who work Downtown will be invited to participate with DVI in the neighborhood’s continued improvement.
Gordon sees the urban workforce as an asset that can, and should, be more involved.
“There are a lot of people Downtown. If they embrace Downtown, they will be our anchor population, our cheerleaders moving forward.
“To give them a reason to be invested on a personal level, I think, is important. That’s our role. We’re about making sure people appreciate what they have in Downtown,” he said.
Viewing Downtown through eyes that saw it years ago and have now returned with experience and expertise gained in another city gives Gordon a particular insight into the job ahead.
“People see the potential of Downtown, but there’s a lot of work to do. If the people here in the city are not embracing it for the benefit it can be, that’s a challenge,” he said. “There is pride, but there also is apathy toward Downtown. We can do better.”