The Cawton Report: DIA CEO Aundra Wallace on accomplishments, challenges ahead
Downtown Investment Authority CEO Aundra Wallace has plenty of work before leaving the city agency to lead the JAXUSA Partnership starting Oct. 1.
From evaluating multiple convention center proposals to moving Downtown development projects ahead, Wallace said the next month and a half should be busy.
“It was something that I could not professionally pass up,” said Wallace.
Since arriving in 2013 from Detroit, his focus has been making Downtown Jacksonville a vibrant, working neighborhood again after decades of relative inactivity.
Under Wallace, the DIA grew into one of the more influential city agencies.
Wallace led negotiations on major deals like the Barnett and Laura Street Trio redevelopment projects in the urban core and The District mixed-use development on the Southbank.
“Getting a track record is hard,” said Wallace. “I’m very happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish at the DIA.”
Wallace said he’ll provide the DIA’s nine-member board with enough information to hopefully select a site for a new convention center and give insight into other projects, like the Berkman Plaza II, before leaving.
He said the DIA staff – Finance Manager Tom Daly, Redevelopment Coordinator Jim Klement, Operations Manager Guy Parola and Executive Assistant Karen Underwood – have what they need to succeed.
“Part of what I’m doing is making sure the team knows my intellectual capacity when it comes to projects,” said Wallace. “And making sure that that’s passed on to the board chairman and the administration.”
A new convention center is at the top of the list.
On Aug. 1, the city received three bids from developers seeking to build a convention center, hotel and parking garage along East Bay Street where the old Duval County Courthouse and City Hall buildings remain.
Wallace, along with DIA board member Oliver Barakat, and Director of Public Works John Pappas, make up an evaluation committee. They will individually score submissions against criteria outlined in a request for proposals.
“I will present the ranking of those proposals at the Sept. 19 (DIA) meeting for that particular site,” Wallace said.
Those are just the official responses.
Shad Khan’s Iguana Investments Florida LLC group wants to build the convention center complex at Metropolitan Park in collaboration with Rimrock Devlin DeBartolo Jacksonville LLC.
Rimrock Devlin DeBartolo also offered an alternative plan for the Bay Street sites that includes apartments, a new hotel and food hall.
“I’m not going to get into that,” Wallace said about which plan he thinks works best.
“Because the DIA can’t do that alone, this is a conversation (the developers) must have with the administration,” he said.
He also expects movement on the Berkman Plaza II structure.
“Hopefully between now and then we’ll be able to take our verbal conversations and move them to paper,” he said.
Wallace’s working relationship with the administration and City Council is one of his strengths, even though he was appointed before Mayor Lenny Curry took office in 2015.
The agency was formed when former Mayor Alvin Brown’s restructured the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission.
While the DIA is the master developer for the urban core, Brooklyn, LaVilla and part of the Southbank, the Office of Economic Development oversees projects in all of Duval County.
Wallace said until 2017, the conversation around Downtown “was more about what could be versus what was actually happening.”
I think after we got the financial structure in place for the Barnett and the Trio, people really began to say, wow, we really can do this,” he said.
Wallace led negotiations with SouthEast Development Group and the Molasky Group of Cos. to redevelop four historic buildings along North Laura Street.
The economic development deal approved in 2017 by the DIA and council resulted in a $9.8 million financial incentives package for the group to build 100 apartments, office space, a University of North Florida satellite campus and a retail bank with JPMorgan Chase.
“There were other small wins, too,” said Wallace. “The (Cowford) Chophouse has been a huge success, Bellwether has been a huge success, Super Food and Brew has been a huge success,” he said.
Wallace also helped bring affordable and workforce housing to LaVilla. The Vestcor Companies are bringing roughly 600 new apartments to the area through four projects.
“The mere fact that you can invest approximately just over $1.1 million in loan money and get the type of development that’s been going on in LaVilla when nothing was taking place for 20-plus years shows you what’s possible,” he said.
Vestcor, like other developers, received low-interest loans backed by the city and state, as well as property tax breaks to build residential developments.
Wallace also negotiated an economic development deal for The District on the Downtown Southbank.
The 30-acre mixed-use project from Elements Development of Jacksonville LLC includes apartments and condos, hotel rooms, office, retail and public park space for a site vacated by JEA for the past decade.
It is the city’s largest economic development deal for a Downtown project with $26.4 million committed to build public infrastructure, and a Recapture Enhanced Value Grant worth up to $56 million over the next 22 years.
“I can tell you that was probably some of the most creativity that you could pull out of 20-plus years of doing this,” said Wallace about the effort after previous attempts failed.
The first economic development package included complicated financing mechanisms that didn’t impress council members. Wallace and his team had to re-enter negotiations with Elements before a deal was approved.
“Hard work paid off,” Wallace said.
The next challenge
In his new job, Wallace will have a bigger territory to cover.
Wallace was recruited over the summer by JAXUSA Partnership. The organization recruits corporate investment for Baker, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns counties.
“I don’t take that lightly whatsoever,” said Wallace.
He will be the first African-American to lead the organization.
“I think it’s the unique qualifications that I have for the position that hopefully led them to the decision, but I’m not going to shy away from the fact that I’m an African-American male,” he said.
While most of his career has focused on urban development, Wallace said he does not forget growing up in rural Georgia where he said an economic development deal can be the difference between a town surviving and not.
“I understand what it means to provide a loan to a peanut farm in North Carolina that employs 500 people,” he said.
“If they don’t get that line of credit to meet payroll, then 500 families in that small, 10,000-(population) community town go hungry.”
And although his territory will expand beyond the DIA’s boundaries, Wallace said he’ll remain focused on Downtown.
“I have a vested interest in whether the Downtown Investment Authority succeeds. That’s a big pitch of what we’ll be doing at JAXUSA.”