by Karen Brune Mathis
Preston Haskell is a veteran civic and business leader, having founded The Haskell Co. design-build firm in Jacksonville in 1965, before he turned 30, and extending his reach throughout the business and cultural community, including an ownership interest in the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Haskell, 72, chaired the Northbank Redevelopment Task Force, an effort launched by Mayor John Peyton and taken on by the year-old Jacksonville Civic Council of more than 50 business and civic leaders. On Tuesday, the task force issued its report calling for creation of an independent Downtown Improvement Authority with funding of about $29 million a year. Haskell was interviewed at his office Wednesday.
You’re a veteran civic leader and you have been involved in Downtown and with the City for a long time. Why do you think that this task force report is the one that will actually help to revitalize downtown?
There have been a number of white papers and reports published on Downtown in recent years, but they are usually land-use plans, and ours, I think, differs in that it is not only a land-use plan, but it also advocates a governance structure and implementation agency and also has an economic plan, sources and uses of funds. So this is a report which is land-use, governance and economics, and I think and hope that this will be its distinguishing characteristic and we can move forward.
How did the task force come into existence?
Following the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce Leadership Trip to Kansas City in the fall of 2009, Mayor Peyton, who was on the trip, called a group of us together and, impressed by what he saw about the use of the sports arena and Downtown entertainment district, and knowing that the Shipyards property and the courthouse property were soon to be available to the City, asked us to serve as a task force to study the Northbank area and make recommendations. Shortly thereafter, the Jacksonville Civic Council came into existence and with the mayor’s enthusiastic approval, we transferred the task force from a mayoral task force to a Jacksonville Civic Council task force, expanded the membership beyond the group that the mayor originally formed, including some non-JCC members, and it went forward as the Civic Council’s first major policy initiative.
How are the City Council members, the candidates, the mayor and the mayoral candidates responding to this report?
We have had positive response from those with whom we have met. I’ve met personally with several City Council members. We have had open meetings and conferences attended by a number of the council candidates. (Mayoral candidate) Audrey Moran was at one of our meetings and expressed enthusiasm for the project. Mayor Peyton, of course, has responded positively. Thus far, there seems to be a good deal of interest. But I think there’s still work to be done. There are many other public officials to be involved, and we will continue our advocacy with those that are running for office as well as incumbents.
What will be your continued role in the task force?
I’ll continue to be an advocate and spokesman and will probably be called upon to meet with or speak to various groups.
How do you think the citizens of Jacksonville, especially those who live in the suburbs and may not come Downtown very often, if at all, will accept this report and its recommendations?
That’s a great question, and the answer is that we must demonstrate why Downtown is important to the person who lives in Mandarin or Arlington. The economic benefits of a vibrant Downtown flow very directly to the suburbs. Downtown uses less tax money than it generates so that suburban tax burdens are lower because of a strong Downtown. And if we can invest in Downtown, it will continue to be beneficial, both tangibly and intangibly to all citizens. Downtown is everybody’s neighborhood. Downtown can do things that no single suburban neighborhood can do for the vitality and the economic well-being of the city.
The report talks about increasing the number of people who live Downtown. It also talks about increasing the entertainment options. And it also talks about recruiting more businesses Downtown. How do you go from Point A to Point B to Point C?
You have accurately mentioned the three constituents: employment, residential, and retail and entertainment. They go hand-in-hand. I think residential is perhaps the most important of the three, because if we have people living Downtown and working Downtown, they can stay Downtown 24/7, they can energize the entertainment aspects of Downtown, they can be a dynamic in making Downtown a destination for people who live in the suburbs. And that’s particularly true as to our recommendations for Bay Street and over the long run for integrating the sports complex into Downtown. So there’s no single answer, but we have to keep our eye on all three balls; Increasing employment and office workers and office buildings Downtown, residents and residential spaces Downtown, and retail, entertainment, food and beverage venues.
The report has an interesting concept for part of the Shipyards property, and that is the entertainment center. What do you think the possibilities are for that to happen?
We have had a national firm who has done this in 13 other cities, very successfully, and they’re enthusiastic about doing this in Jacksonville. And the next step would be to receive a more definitive proposal from them. But the entertainment part might include a big wheel like the London Eye, a zip line, adventure golf and that sort of thing. We think that would energize particularly the large Shipyards area, and make it fun to come Downtown for families as well as adults.
We talked about your civic leadership and you are always in the forefront. Is there an emerging set of civic leaders? Who do you hand off to?
It’s very important that the future leadership of our community become involved in issues like this, and there’s a wonderful set of young men and women to whom we should pass the torch of leadership. The Civic Council itself has been active in identifying younger members. There are a number of organizations which are interested in bringing young people into civic leadership, such as Impact Jacksonville, Rotary, Leadership Jacksonville, and I am very, very actively committed to passing the leadership roles to those young men and women who represent the future of our community.
The community has changed since you established your business here. This is The Haskell Co. This is your company. There’s been a lot of turnover in corporate ownership in Jacksonville, without the staying power and sustainability of leaders who come and go with transfers. Do you see that as an issue?
I definitely do. Some of those executives come and go and never get involved. Others, to their great credit, will become involved and unfortunately will leave us. Others will stay with us. We also have a number of new companies that are headquartered in Jacksonville, and I hope that their leaders will step up and become involved in the community. But you’re right. We’ve lost the banks and the insurance companies that were so prominent 20 years ago, and we need to find new companies who are headquartered in Jacksonville and get them more involved.
Tell me what you see with the economy right now. Are you seeing an economic recovery?
I think that within the next 12 to 18 months we will have returned substantially to pre-recession levels. In terms of how it impacts our Downtown redevelopment efforts, if we can spend the next year or so planning and doing the necessary financial and legislative moves, it may be very good timing 12 to 18 months from now to actually put a shovel in the ground and move forward with some of these recommendations.
The Civic Council has two major issues on its plate to start. Downtown is being addressed. The second is the City budget. Are you going to be involved?
I am following it closely but I’m not a member of the task force. I think it’s an important initiative and one which I will help in any way that I can.
You also are known for your cultural contributions, especially your art collection. How did you start your collection?
Years ago, when I first came to Jacksonville, Bob Jacobs, for whom I worked at that time, was a collector of contemporary art. Jackie Holmes had a contemporary art gallery and I was attracted to what I saw, and began making some very modest purchases early on, and enjoyed it, built a home as well as this office building with artwork in mind, and have enjoyed the combination of architecture and art, and using this building as a venue for a significant art collection.
You’re an owner of the Jaguars. Are they going to win a Super Bowl?
We’re going to go to the playoffs. How far we get beyond the playoffs remains to be seen, but I’m really optimistic about the prospects for next season. We’ve got some great young players, we’ve got some good veterans that are really making the difference and we will have a good draft, I hope and expect, and (general manager) Gene Smith has done a great job of pulling the talent together. This coming season should be the season in which all of that coalesces into a playoff team.