It might be a multimillion-dollar condo complex or a multinational corporation’s headquarters that brings life back to Jacksonville’s Downtown.
Or it could be the hundreds of young hipsters who venture to the Elbow District each weekend to tilt back a beer with a buddy and listen to some really great bands.
Cameron Beard is betting on the latter.
The mission of his business, Underbelly, a live events venue with an eclectic mix of music, is to get Downtown cool again.
“How are you going to get people to move back to — in theory — a cancerous part of town, where there’s not even a grocery store?” he said. “The whole reason people live Downtown is so they can walk everywhere.
“You need to build a night life, and then people will want to live here because it’s a happening scene.”
Beard is a sixth-generation Jacksonville native and music aficionado who built car stereo systems for friends in high school and has dabbled in photography.
He and former business partner Emily Moody moved Underbelly to Downtown in June 2012.
The early Underbelly had been a neighborhood party spot with live music, set behind a shop in Riverside. Neighbors complained about the noise and the venue was forced to shut down, but
fans didn’t want the party to
“If Underbelly didn’t come Downtown and do what we’re doing, then it was always going to end up being just a little bubble that burst,” Beard said.
Beard’s vision was for a place that was both unpretentious and fun. He designed the 4,600-square-foot space — big enough for a stage and dancing — with subtle lighting and nooks of furniture, so even a room filled with hundreds of people would feel cozy.
“My whole thing with this place is — I don’t care who you are or what you do, leave it at the door, come in and be a cool human,” he said.
Beard brought bands from all parts of the country, and even Germany and Switzerland, to create a scene where something new and fresh happens every night.
“I think Jacksonville people can get complacent, sit at home and go out maybe once a month,” he said. “So, what we try to do is
give reasons for people to not stay at home and watch ‘The Bachelor,’ because that’s horrible.”
An online calendar of events, theelbowjax.com, ties Underbelly with other venues on the block like 1904 Music Hall, Burro Bar, Dos Gatos and the Florida Theatre, defining the “Elbow” District.
Two years ago, it all was tumbleweeds, Beard said. Now, hundreds are there Thursday through Saturday nights.
If Underbelly was located on the beach, Beard figures he’d already be “sleeping on a pile of cash.” Instead, the venture just recently tipped into the black.
But then, the whole point was to make it happen Downtown.
“I wanted to do something that would help the city,” Beard said. “Downtown is the heart. It’s historic and real, and Jacksonville is never going to be put on the map unless you get it cool again.”