JEDC's Ron Barton: 'My job is to keep my nose to the grindstone'

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  • | 12:00 p.m. January 6, 2011
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Ron Barton grew up in Jacksonville and, after years working in other cities, returned in August 2005 as the third full-time executive director of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, which was formed in 1997 and is part of the mayor’s office, directing the City’s role in economic development. The JEDC absorbed existing City economic development functions, including the Downtown Development Authority. Barton met with the Daily Record editorial staff last week.

If you could narrow the commission’s goals for 2011 to just one, what is it?
Given the upcoming mayoral race, I think it would be incumbent on me to help frame the key issues that affect either economic development or Downtown development. Certainly being the practitioner that serves the mayor and the community, I think I’m certainly in a unique position to understand the issues and opportunities and constraints, and I think I have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer to help present that information in a meaningful way, so that we can continue to execute on our objectives.

What are those key issues?
I have to caveat any response by saying we’re in an unprecedented economic time. The national economists failed to use the word ‘depression,’ but it sure feels like it as you look around. Certainly it’s a deep recession. You have to filter your expectations.

Notwithstanding that, I think we have continued to map out paths for success, whether it’s Cecil Commerce Center, where we spent several years refining the master plan so that it could actually be implemented, and getting an appropriate nationally recognized partner to help us implement it.

Certainly in Downtown, when I got here, I’m not sure we were strategic about what we were doing, and so (that led to) the whole formulation of the Downtown Action Plan. Having that playbook and working it has been even more vital in this recession.

Much of it was in the realm we could control, which is the public realm. What you see today in the midst of almost zero private development are initiatives in our public realm – Friendship Fountain, Met (Metropolitan) Park, Laura Street, the floating docks that are eventually going to get implemented at Riverside Arts Market – those are all things that we established three years ago at the tail end of a hot development market.

How big of a factor will Downtown be in the spring mayoral election?
I hope it will be a big factor. Second to job creation, I believe that Downtown issues are the most important, because where the Downtown goes is where this community will go. Nothing in history suggests that a greater region is going to grow and prosper if the primary business center, entertainment center, the primary heart of an area, isn’t successful.

Let’s talk about parking. It comes up constantly that the reason companies are leaving Downtown is because of parking. True? Untrue?
As a blanket statement it’s untrue. All one needs to do is look at an aerial of Downtown and it’s a sea of vacancy and surface parking lots. If you’re reasonably knowledgeable about Downtown, you’re also going to be able to pick out the parking garages in that aerial.

What about the cost of parking?
It’s ironic. There’s an ample supply of parking relative to other urban markets, and it’s also relatively inexpensive. I’ve worked in downtown Orlando, downtown Tampa, and downtown St. Petersburg, in both the public and the private sectors, and I’ve paid for my parking in every one of those circumstances. I’ve paid for mine here. The concept that employers need to underwrite their employees in order to stay Downtown is concerning for me because there are very few markets in the United States that operate that way.

It’s not a function of figuring out a way to underwrite it. It’s a function of creating value. You pay more for certain things because there’s a value proposition. I don’t think we’ve created a value proposition for Downtown.

I think that’s the key, that if there’s any impediment for growth of employment in the Downtown setting, it’s because we’ve not made Downtown relevant to the business, and we’ve not made Downtown relevant to the employee.

What do you think it would take to make Downtown Jacksonville a value proposition? What are we talking about?
It’s the overall experience. Your streets should be enjoyable to be on. I hate that in 2010, we’re still talking about a fundamental issue of just making your streets pedestrian-friendly. That means great streetscapes, planting trees, good lighting, good signage, garbage cans, those are just base level. Many cities have turned the corner. Well, why haven’t we?

We have to formulate a strategy for a more relevant entertainment experience Downtown.

The issue of Jacksonville being involved in the convention industry is not going to go away, so we need to either embrace it and implement a solution, or make a determination that fundamentally, we’re not going to be in the convention business. Those are all building blocks.

We have some very strategic and important real estate holdings that we need to be real thoughtful about how we use them. Clearly, three or four years ago, we were on one path, and I think that the development environment is different today, so we have to rethink how we’re going to do that.

You have a lot of people in the suburbs who say Downtown has only gotten worse in terms of things to do. How do you respond?
Well, it has gotten worse for things to do. It’s gotten worse because the offerings have actually increased in the suburbs. Ten years ago, there was no St. Johns Town Center. There’s always going to be a competitor to Downtown. That’s OK. The question is, how does Downtown evolve and change to be relevant to a visitor, relevant to a worker, relevant to the citizen?

Are you having discussions about that?
I’m thinking about this (courthouse and annex) property that’s going to be vacated in about two years. What’s going to happen to those two buildings, short term and long term? You don’t have to be a great urban planner to figure out that’s where a convention center (has been discussed).

Is anybody talking about it seriously?
The answer is yes. About a year ago, the mayor sought advice about what’s next from a lot of folks who are respected in our community who have had their shoulder to the wheel for a long time in making Jacksonville a better place.

In that meeting were (business, development and civic leaders) Preston Haskell, Ed Burr, John Rood, Bob Rhodes, folks who have been involved, particularly in the Downtown agenda. It was an interesting meeting, because the mayor said, ‘I’ve got two years. What things can I do to progress the Downtown agenda that can be meaningful?’

The courthouse site and the (former) City Hall site were going to become vacant in about four years at that time, three years now. The Shipyards property, it was clear that was going to come back to us. We have key real estate assets.

What did they say?
Interestingly enough, there were four different opinions on what to do. And the mayor kind of said, ‘welcome to my world.’ Here are four intelligent, engaged folks that are both real estate savvy and community savvy. And all four of them came to a different conclusion. They weren’t close. That’s a great illustration that really engaged, smart people who care are going to have divergent opinions on where to go.

Does that mean four answers or no answers?
This was really at the same time that a lot of folks were thinking about the merits of a Jacksonville Civic Council and made the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce leadership visit to Kansas City, so this conversation morphed into the civic council being formed, embracing the question that the mayor posed.

So the mayor said, ‘why don’t you guys go bring back some of those observations?’ So, that’s what you have. There’s actually a lot of conversation. They are going to bring forward some Downtown recommendations here in the next week that are particularly focused on the future of the courthouse site.

What are we going to see?
Clearly the courthouse site’s an integral part, that’s no surprise. The convention facility is going to be part of conversation, no surprise. The entertainment part of the equation, no surprise. It comes at a good time because the CEO of the city has to be committed.

Are you advocating for the revival of the Downtown Development Authority?
I would challenge anybody to make a determination that in the last five years, this JEDC as the Downtown development agency has done any less, and in fact has done much more, than any dedicated downtown development authority. I think it’s a semantics issue. The fact is, we’ve had no resources, so I clearly don’t believe the Downtown issue is an issue of governance. I think it’s an issue of funding.

Let me give you an example. Metropolitan Park, the Southbank Riverwalk effort, the Friendship Fountain, fundamentally are maintenance efforts.

First, I would contend those are citywide assets. They’re not just Downtown assets. They are relevant to all of Jacksonville.

Second, they’re fundamentally maintenance, even though there’s some substantial redevelopment.

Third, the JEDC has had to fund that out of its resources, not the capital plan of the City.

I don’t think the issue is getting nine more people around a table to think about it. Frankly, I think we’re in a very appropriate public vetting environment.

But the issues are (having) the resources to execute and continuity. I think we provided more continuity in the last five years than any previous DDA. We’ve not had the resources.

Can you give us a JEDC report card for 2010? What’s the best thing JEDC did?
Clearly, establishing a master developer partner at Cecil Commerce Center wasn’t just a 2010 achievement. I think that was a significant era achievement. Government isn’t going to be the answer to execute a complicated redevelopment of a former military base.

It gets that sustainability and staying power and focus that you’re not necessarily going to have if it’s under the stewardship of the City itself, so I would say for 2010, clearly that’s the most dominant achievement.

Behind it, I would say, I’m most proud of implementation efforts on our public spaces Downtown.

Let’s not take for granted, we fought to build the funding around those, when funding was almost nonexistent. Granted, we had to use our pots (of tax-increment financing proceeds), which I believe should be deal-oriented. I think the TIF, and the resources that the JEDC had developed over time, should be deal-oriented, that help public-private partnerships. The capital needs of Downtown are capital needs of the City.

For the Downtown property owners to have to be the only funding source to replace the Riverwalk when it’s a citywide asset, we don’t do so in Arlington, or Southside, or Westside. We don’t say, by the way, only the Westside people are going to pay for that park. The City pays for it. Downtown’s the only place we do this, and it makes no sense, because those Downtown assets are clearly citywide.

My second achievement for 2010 that I’m very proud of is pushing aggressively for the funding and now implementation of those (projects). We’re very active in the project management of them.

We haven’t been adding a lot of jobs. In fact, the area’s been losing jobs during the recession. What do you see happening in 2011?
Despite the high unemployment rate, and those job losses, Jacksonville still has fared fairly well. Or, said in a negative way, it could have fared much worse.

2011, I think, frankly is going to be more of the same. I think we’re going to have some successes. I think we’re probably still going to bump the bottom, even though maybe a year and a half ago, people were predicting a slow uptick. That just means that we’re going to have to roll our sleeves up and work even harder.

I finally realized that when somebody stands at the podium and talks (in opposition to the) JEDC, it’s not our organization or our effectiveness. It’s generally that that person is philosophically opposed to the government participating in a private venture and in this case, it’s in the form of an incentive. They are fundamentally opposed to the concept of public-private partnerships.

I’ve tried to share with people, do you have a homestead exemption? Well, if you have a homestead exemption, you’re getting an incentive from the local government. If you happen to purchase groceries or medicine that don’t have a sales tax on them, you’ve just received an incentive. Incentives are throughout our economy and our community.

We’ve got to compete. You respond in a way in which your competition does. That’s not just incentives, but it is part of the equation. I’d like to see a better embracing of the tools that we use, and it’s ironic that sometimes there’s this criticism of the tools that JEDC uses, yet the incentive policy is adopted by City Council.

All we’re doing is using a toolkit that the City Council allows us to use.

What happens to the JEDC and what happens to Ron Barton with the new mayor?
I’d start with the first, that I believe the JEDC is a very effective organization for this community. I’d say the thing I’m proud of in the last five years is the fact that despite two-thirds of my tenure being in a poor economy, and half the people and half the budget of six years ago, I think we’ve done good things.

I’ve explained many times that JEDC’s in a unique place in government. We translate public policy and objectives to the private sector because, trust me, it’s foreign to most of the private sector. And we translate the private sector’s objectives to the public bodies. So we’re a translator. Not just a deal-maker.

That’s why I believe (the JEDC) belongs in the mayor’s office, because that’s your CEO. I believe in the JEDC model, I think it’s a strong one. I think, just as the community decided to consolidate government for efficiency, JEDC consolidated economic development for efficiency. Even more so, now that we’re 17 people versus 42 people six years ago.

We have a budget now that’s smaller than the Special Events department, and we have Downtown development, Cecil (Commerce Center) economic growth to speak to. How do you start to separate that, and do so in a context of efficiency? It doesn’t make sense.

I think the JEDC has an important role in the community and I think it’s better consolidated.

As for me, my job is to keep my nose to the grindstone to stay focused and execute on behalf of the taxpayer. I perceive my job as a technical job, not a political job. It has elements of politics to it, but I think fundamentally, I’m a professional in the economic development, redevelopment and real estate world. The best thing I can do for the next mayor is to do my job now.

You will have a new mayor and new City Council members every four to eight years. Who is in charge of the continuity?
You would hope the community is. I think government is just a reflection of community desire. Government tends to manage to the lowest common denominator, which is not very desirous. You don’t really get anywhere in that approach. There are a lot of folks, there are a lot of business owners, entrepreneurs, retirees, there are a lot of citizens of Duval County who I think want a better Jacksonville. But they’re too busy just trying to do the things they do in their everyday life.

What happens is a small minority tend to frame the issues, and I don’t think they’re reflective of the majority. That’s why I think most people elect folks to lead. They expect them to legislate for the greater good.