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Ben Warner, Jacksonville Community Council Inc. president and CEO, asks questions to Toney Sleiman, Jacksonville Landing co-owner, and Mike Balanky, Chase Properties Ltd., about Downtown development. The two were part of a panel that also featured Ste...
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Apr. 24, 201412:00 PM EST

Pension, politics and sprawl can be barriers to Downtown redevelopment

by: David Chapman

With an election year approaching, politics could jeopardize Downtown’s development.

So could the city’s ongoing and costly pension problem.

And consolidation, often hailed as a hallmark for Jacksonville, can be considered a deterrent for a strong urban core.

Those were some of opinions from a panel Wednesday hosted by the North Florida Society for Marketing Professionals that talked about Downtown development and how to capitalize on momentum building for the urban core.

The group comprised Toney Sleiman, Jacksonville Landing co-owner; Mike Balanky, Chase Properties Ltd. president; Steve Halverson, Jacksonville Civic Council chair; and Aundra Wallace, Downtown Investment Authority CEO.

Balanky said the current administration, City Council and others need to work together to ensure success and that “shame on any of us to politicize this.”

Pension obligations, Halverson said, have left budgets bare for a committed, ongoing funding source for Downtown and other city departments.

“It has nothing to do with Downtown, but everything to do with Downtown,” he said of the need for pension reform.

He went on to say that consolidation, which has increased the sheer size of Jacksonville, makes people lose focus of the importance of Downtown. Instead, the economic center is the St. Johns Town Center, he said.

“Downtown isn’t Downtown anymore,” Halverson said.

Any roadblock that can hurt the core’s growth also could jeopardize capitalizing on the current momentum building in the real estate market, the group concluded.

But to capitalize and attract that development will require a first move by the public sector, through incentives, by investing.

“If they don’t invest, how can they expect developers to invest?” Balanky said of the public sector.

Wallace, head of the Downtown Investment Authority, said such public funding “will have to reward particular pioneers.” He said the authority and public officials must be selective when doling out incentives. The authority this year started with $4.1 million in its economic development fund, but has earmarked some for projects and programs.

How much will be dedicated for future years isn’t known, but Halverson afterward said up to $30 million annually would be sufficient, but even a steady $20 million would help.

“It will not leap,” Halverson said of the private sector leading. “We will not see private money go first.”

There was further consensus about where the growth should start.

Each agreed the Landing should be priority No. 1, which coincides with the results of a Downtown feasibility study finalized last week.

The No. 2 also was a consensus, but it wasn’t the widely talked about Shipyards or Hemming Plaza. Instead, the panelists said the old County Courthouse along Bay Street should follow the Landing’s redevelopment. The site is contiguous with the Hyatt and the Landing.

“Let’s go right next door,” Wallace said, “and work our way east.”

It also could serve as the site of a convention center, which Balanky said would have a ripple effect for surrounding developments.

But catching the momentum and the upward cycle will be critical for this wave of possible development.

“We can’t miss the opportunity,” Balanky said. “Time guts a deal.”

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