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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Apr. 15, 201412:00 PM EST

From the publisher: Now's the time to keep Downtown's spark alive

by: James F. Bailey Jr.

Hey, folks.

Meet Downtown Jacksonville.

I really tried to avoid writing about One Spark for today’s newspaper, less than 24 hours after the crowdfunded festival successfully ended its second annual run.

But, as a Downtown advocate for more than two decades, I just can’t resist looking at what made this event work so well, what it could portend for Jacksonville’s future and how we may once again fail to take advantage of the positive impact of the past few days.

In so many ways, unlike any other event, One Spark is analogous for Downtown.

One Spark worked because the people behind it are young, bright, creative doers.

They not only have vision, but they have the tools to bring their vision to life.

For many years, people have looked at Downtown as a great stage for events that attract crowds to listen to music and view art.

It happens on the first Wednesday of each month at Art Walk.

It will occur over Memorial Day weekend when the Jacksonville Jazz Festival plays out at new venues in Downtown.

But, One Spark’s creators based this festival on ideas. They let their minds go to places of “What if?” and “Why not?”

And then, they brought an army of energetic volunteers and hundreds of creative people along for the ride.

They took a spark and lit a fire for five days in Downtown.

They used recognition and financial reward to turn Downtown’s streets, sidewalks, storefronts and open spaces into workshops and stages for innovation.

Guess what?

All of that, along with good music and food, is a great magnet for both innovators and audiences.

And, it is a great formula for making Downtown a 12-month place for people to live, not just a space to have fun five days a year.

One Spark introduced Downtown to thousands and reintroduced it to thousands more.

It changed the perception many had about homeless

and parking.

The homeless were there, but they were not the topic of conversation. With thousands of people, they became invisible.

As for parking, it reminded me of a Yogi Berra-ism. “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Like the Super Bowl, people wanted to be a part. No one drove around and left because they couldn’t find a space. They wanted to be a part of it.

Today, there probably are people who had written off Downtown who now are ready to take a second look.

One Spark also put Downtown and the faces of the festival in homes of the masses across Northeast Florida through the media.

Maybe you didn’t come Downtown for One Spark, but you still got an up-close look through newspaper and television coverage.

So, what does all of this mean for Downtown?

It depends.

Remember the Super Bowl back in 2005?

Thousands upon thousands of people packed Downtown for events leading up to the game.

There was plenty of local enthusiasm and a lot of talk about using it all to leverage economic development and the rebirth of Downtown.

But, for numerous reasons, we never took advantage of the momentum.

It seems to me that if anything is different about then and now it is timing.

Today there is a group clearly focused on Downtown and understands its value, even though at times it seems we have too many disconnected agendas and far too few resources.

Downtown has the attention of a lot of people, including investors, developers, and politicians.

And with the great help of One Spark, Downtown now has a large and targeted market that has had a personal experience with Downtown as a place they want to be.

During One Spark, the Downtown sidewalks did not fold up at dark.

Thousands of people discovered that the heart of their city can have a solid and racing heartbeat after midnight.

It is these people who can make Downtown a neighborhood and it can become their 24-hour community.

But first, we must build places for them to live and 24/7 spaces for them to have fun.

Remember when we wanted football here in Northeast Florida? We banged on the door of the NFL until Wayne Weaver heard us knocking, and he answered.

We need to continue with the knocking.

We need to erase the Berkman skeleton from our skyline and transform the old City Hall and courthouse properties as an open space for the people to play on the riverfront that is surrounded by residences, restaurants, bars and offices.

Young professionals are just like most other folks. They want to feel safe.

It’s a fact that Downtown is probably the safest place to be in Jacksonville. But it’s also a fact that the opposite perception is still alive. This is the generation that can help us put that myth to rest.

One Spark has ignited all of us and the energy and enthusiasm is free flowing.

It’s created not only an army of advocates for its festival, it has given birth to thousands of potential new allies for Downtown.

In the past, it may have seemed the city was a hazard to navigating Downtown’s success.

The Downtown Investment Authority, of which I am a member, should be the aid to navigating success.

It’s up to us to build it so they will come Downtown to live, work and play.

[email protected]

(904) 356-2466

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