Just west of Downtown Jacksonville there’s a neighborhood that some of its inhabitants call invisible.
Some streets are lined with potholes. There are vacant buildings. Storms combined with drainage issues can make the roads impassable.
But that doesn’t mean everything is negative in the industrial and residential community that’s been named the Rail Yard District after the active railroad tracks that run through it.
Business owners in the 4.5-square-mile zone say they believe they can turn the district into the region’s next prosperous area if they can get financial support, particularly in the form of new infrastructure funding, from the city.
The entrepreneurs recently formed a nonprofit called the Rail Yard District Business Council with help from the Jacksonville chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corp.
“The city has kind of forgotten about this neighborhood, even though it is so close to Downtown,” said Annie Murphy, the council’s vice president and co-owner of Eco Relics, a 50,000-square-foot architectural salvage, antique and curio shop and custom woodworking operation.
North of Riverside and Five Points, the district’s boundaries are Interstate 10 on the south, I-95 on the east, Kings Road on the north and Huron Street on the west.
Within that zone are industrial businesses like Load King and Drummond Press, retail entities like the Jacksonville Farmers Market, nonprofits like Rethreaded and entertainment venues including three breweries and an indoor Airsoft arena.
Since incorporating as a 12-member board early this year and holding its first meeting in May, the members have been spreading the word about their goals to capitalize on the district’s untapped economic potential while improving the neighborhood and, they hope, the city.
They want to improve the poor drainage and some of the worst roads in Jacksonville, said President Jeff Edwards, the chief financial officer for Beaver Street Fisheries, which also operates the Jacksonville Farmers Market.
Members said those infrastructure issues stem from underinvestment by city, state and federal governments.
Edwards said there have not been people, businesses or organizations speaking up for the neighborhood, so when government agencies are allocating resources, projects needed in the area aren’t funded.
He said it seems other parts of Jacksonville get all the attention.
When Edwards spoke with LISC officials about problems in the area, he said the need was obvious to “create a vehicle for advocacy,” so the council was formed.
Its goal is to be the voice that’s been missing. They plan to lobby local, state and federal elected officials for support.
“We are focused on what businesses can’t do themselves. I can’t fix Beaver Street, Kings Road, Stockton Street, Myrtle Avenue and the rest. The city, state and feds have to do that,” Edwards said.
Edwards said many of the area’s businesses operate out of older buildings and that when people drive into the district, the poor quality of the roads, as well as some of the homes and businesses, steer them away.
“People don’t even know they (businesses) exist. For all those reasons, this neighborhood is invisible,” he said.
Despite the negatives, many point to the district’s assets like its proximity to more successful neighborhoods like Riverside and Brooklyn, its location near the St. Johns River, having five exits off the region’s two interstate highways, the low cost of property for new or relocated businesses, the presence of three railroads and its history as a prominent African-American neighborhood.
“The area has the natural opportunity to be something more than it is now,” Edwards said.
Based on research by LISC and its consultants, the district is home to about 350 businesses with about 6,000 employees that generate about $3 billion a year in revenue.
While the area is home to many long-term operations, like Beaver Street Fisheries, and newcomers like Eco Relics and the breweries. One of the newest is Tabula Rasa Brewing, which had its grand opening Sept. 14.
Janet Owens, executive director of LISC Jacksonville, said the nonprofit organization’s mission is to help economically depressed neighborhoods like the Rail Yard District and their businesses and partners rebuild and revitalize their areas.
“We’re trying to help older urban neighborhoods achieve the kind of vitality and health we know they have the potential for,” she said. “We do that by helping create the pathway and opportunity for reinvestment in those communities.”
Its tools include real estate lending, acquisition and predevelopment financing and grants. Owens said LISC Jacksonville hasn’t provided financial support to a Rail Yard District business but that “the potential is there.”
“Our team is actively trying to make sure that (the district’s) businesses are aware that this is accessible to them,” she said, adding that LISC is a resource that offers lending options that often are more accessible than at traditional banking institutions.
Edwards and Annie Murphy said the council initially is focused on spurring the city and other agencies to fix the district’s infrastructure so that more businesses will invest there.
Improved infrastructure also could lead to higher property values, which increases tax revenue to the city.
The council also would like to later add voices to the board from area residents and plans to work with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to implement a neighborhood watch.
“I think all the businesses (in the district) are happy we’re doing this,” Murphy said. “I think we can really make a difference not only for businesses but also for residents here, to even Jacksonville as a whole.”
Since the first council meeting in May, the district has attracted more than 20 business members representing more than 2,500 of the district’s employees.
Dues range from $125 to $2,000, based on the number of employees for businesses in the district, or $25 to $500 for associate memberships for those who live or work outside the district but who support the council’s mission.
The dues will pay for establishing a website and hosting events like a speaker series, candidate forums, art shows, district mailings, eligibility to serve on committees and the board and more.
Murphy said the council has discussed the idea of forming a business improvement district, which would result in additional funds for the community that could be used for area improvements.
“We have poked at it, but nothing official,” she said. “It’s something to work toward.”
She said members want to involve Jacksonville’s elected leaders.
District City Council member Garrett Dennis has been attending the group’s meetings and said he supports its mission.
“That area is oftentimes overlooked,” Dennis said, adding that many people don’t realize how many businesses operate there and how much revenue they produce. “It’s a powerful economic area. It’s a diamond in the rough.”
Dennis said the business council can help him when he proposes projects for the district.
“Who better to tell the story about the district than the businesses that have been there?” he said. “They are the muscle that can help me get things for that area.”
The Rail Yard council’s next general meeting, which is open to the public, is 5 p.m. Sept. 26 at Beaver Street Fisheries, 1741 W. Beaver St.