Mayoral hopefuls talk economic development, Downtown at Rotary forum

Candidate and JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis did not attend the event with seven of the nine candidates so far in the March 2023 election.

Jacksonville mayoral candidates Omega Allen, Leanna Cumber, Donna Deegan, Al Ferraro, Audrey Gibson, Frank Keasler Jr. and Theresa Ann Richardson at the Nov. 21 forum.
Jacksonville mayoral candidates Omega Allen, Leanna Cumber, Donna Deegan, Al Ferraro, Audrey Gibson, Frank Keasler Jr. and Theresa Ann Richardson at the Nov. 21 forum.
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Seven of the nine candidates vying to be Jacksonville’s next mayor outlined their visions Nov. 21 for local economic development in Downtown.

The Rotary Club of Jacksonville sponsored the event at the Marriott Jacksonville Downtown. 

The forum also included discussion about education, public safety and the health of the St. Johns River. 

Participants comprised Omega Allen, a general contractor; City Council member LeAnna Cumber; Donna Deegan, The Donna Foundation nonprofit founder and former 24-year First Coast News anchor; Council member Al Ferraro; retiring Florida Sen. Audrey Gibson; attorney Frank Keasler Jr. and Theresa Ann Richardson, retired.

While the race is nonpartisan, Deegan, Gibson and Richardson are Democrats. Cumber, Ferraro and Keasler Jr. are Republicans. Allen is nonparty affiliated.

JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis, a Republican, is a member of the  Rotary Club. His campaign said Davis notified Rotary in October he would not be participating because of commitments during the week of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Independent Darcy G. Richardson informed Rotary leadership before the event he would not attend.

Additional candidates could enter the race. The qualifying deadline is Jan. 13.

Moderator Hank Coxe, a director at The Bedell Firm, asked the candidates what they considered the most effective vehicle to attract and retain businesses in Jacksonville and if it is important as mayor that Downtown be a primary development focus of the city. 

Their responses:

Donna Deegan

Deegan said that as mayor she would treat quality of life for workers and public infrastructure as the keys to attracting companies and small businesses.  

“If we take care of the public infrastructure, which we have neglected to our own perils, then we would have all sorts of companies that would want to come to Jacksonville and we wouldn’t have to give away the farm to bring them here,” she said.

“We have got to make good on those promises that we have broken over the years after consolidation.”

The nonprofit executive said city leaders need to focus on bringing more arts and entertainment options Downtown to attract and retain young workers and their families.

Deegan is the front-runner for mayor with 22% support among likely 2023 voters in the most recent poll by University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab released Oct. 31.

LeAnna Cumber 

Cumber, the only candidate to criticize Davis by name on policies and his absence from the debate, called a vibrant Downtown core “critical for the rest of our city.” 

The lawyer, former school teacher and former transportation lobbyist drew a contrast between her and Davis on tax and spending priorities.

She noted her opposition to the 6-cent per gallon increase and extension to Duval County’s local option gas tax passed in 2021 to pay for nearly $1 billion in city infrastructure, including money for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s Downtown Skyway modernization endorsed by Davis and the chamber.

Cumber, who represents San Marco on the Council, said she would not spend $500 million on what JTA calls the Ultimate Urban Circulator project. JTA estimates the full project would cost up to $400 million. 

Cumber said the mayor also should focus on local literacy rates among students to attract businesses in Duval County. 

Duval County can recruit businesses by “being the best school choice city in the state and having the best parental empowerment.” 

“Everyone in the city should be screaming about it from the mayor, from Daniel Davis, the CEO of the chamber who is trying to bring business in,” Cumber said. 

“How do you bring business in when our reading scores are at 47%.”

Cumber was referring to data reported by the nonprofit Jacksonville Public Education Fund that only 47% of third-graders in Duval County had proficient scores on the most recent English Language Arts portion of the Florida Standards Assessment.

The voter-elected Duval County School Board sets education policy and spending in Jacksonville, but Cumber said the mayor should be weighing in on school-related issues. 

Audrey Gibson

Gibson said she wants companies to locate Downtown but that the focus for the next mayor should be neighborhood small businesses. 

“Because when the neighborhoods are thriving, when crime is low, when we have livable communities, everybody will want to bring their business to Jacksonville,” Gibson said.

The retiring state senator and former Florida Senate Minority Leader said public incentive dollars could be shifted from attracting corporations, which she says would likely locate in Jacksonville without the money, to neighborhoods. 

Gibson said the city should also help minority businesses create “joint-venture partnerships” through the city Jacksonville Small and Emerging Businesses program to prepare companies for work tied to economic development projects.

Al Ferraro 

The District 2 Council member said he supports Downtown development but wants to “do it in a way that works” by enhancing city safety.

Ferraro said he would direct the city Office of Economic Development with ensuring that the city and taxpayers receive as much of the return on investment as possible and not go to other groups like the chamber.

Ferraro, who chairs the Council’s Jacksonville Waterways Commission, said the city should put more focus in developing and protecting the St. Johns River as a natural asset for business recruitment.

Omega Allen

Allen, a Jacksonville native with an MBA from Jacksonville University, said the city needs to support and identify businesses that reflect the demographics and “desires of the citizens of Jacksonville.” 

She said Downtown needs to have residential, retail, entertainment and reliable transportation to reach its potential. 

“Downtown is the heart of every major city. Jacksonville has heart trouble and it’s in need of a transplant.”

Frank Keasler Jr.

Keasler said he sees Downtown’s infrastructure in place for development. 

“Any thriving city is going to have a thriving Downtown,” he said. 

He linked business development to improving public education with a “program that’s teaching our children and not indoctrinating our children.” 

Theresa Ann Richardson

Richardson said economic development in Jacksonville should be focused on growing its presence in the film industry and drawing attractions to the scale of Disney World in Orlando or Six Flags near Atlanta. 

“We have the space, we have the funds. We have the backbone and we have the intelligence,” she said. “We just need a leader that’s going to get it all done.” 

Davis’s absence 

In a statement to the Daily Record on Nov. 21, Davis campaign spokesperson Erin Isaac said Davis plans to attend future debates after the qualifying deadline. 

Isaac said Davis notified Rotary in October he would not be participating because of commitments during the week of the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Daniel (Davis) is a member of Rotary, has spoken to the group several times and appreciates the invitation to do so again,” Issac said. 

“Daniel looks forward to debating all the qualified candidates many times in the new year.

Davis was second in the UNF poll and led the Republican field with 7% support. 

He led in campaign fundraising as of Oct. 31 with $4.4 million in cash between his political committee and his campaign account, according to Florida Politics.

Cumber, who was tied with Gibson with 6% support in the poll, had nearly $2.75 million in the last report. Ferraro had 4% in the UNF poll with less than $250,000.

The nine candidates are running to replace term-limited and Republican Mayor Lenny Curry in the March 2023 election.