Contractor renovating Arlington shopping center discovers ‘how special this place really was’
Dan Manjack moves to Jacksonville, buys ABT Fishing and plans to open First Gear Coffee in College Park.
| 12:05 a.m. November 30, 2023
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Dan Manjack has overseen construction and renovation projects in dozens of urban settings throughout the United States.
The veteran contractor was so impressed with his latest project in Jacksonville’s Arlington area that he moved from Clearwater to Northeast Florida and invested in businesses there.
Manjack, 55, is the superintendent of Agile Contracting Inc., a subcontractor hired by ShayCore LLC for the renovation of College Park, the former Town & Country Shopping Center at northeast University Boulevard and Arlington Expressway.
He said he made the decision to move after two years of work on the project.
“I started the job and I liked Arlington. All these naysayers were saying how bad this place was and everything else,” he said.
“We just started working here and developing this area. Through the course of being here we realized how special this place really was.”
The Town & Country Shopping Center was built in 1953 and was Arlington’s first retail plaza. After decades of decline, the center fell into disrepair and few businesses in it remained until the current renovation.
Manjack said many Jacksonville residents began to visit the construction site and reminisced. He said he was unprepared for the groundswell of interest and support.
“After months and months of that, you start realizing you’re kind of at a special place and you’re renovating something for a cause,” Manjack said.
“To this day, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people come up to us throughout the course of the past two years just telling us what Arlington was (to them).”
Still he and his construction crew have encountered skepticism, he said.
They’ve taken some verbal harassment from people who mocked the crews and said Arlington couldn't be resurrected. Construction equipment was vandalized and stolen.
Manjack said he confronted some of the skeptics. He invited them to view architectural and development plans by JWB Real Estate Capital Partners, which owns the property.
He said he didn't expect to convince everyone of the benefits of the renovation, but he has reversed a lot of doubt.
“All the negative people were saying, ‘This area’s not coming back.’ But I saw the plans. This project is going to be close to $20 million when the build-out is done,” Manjack said.
“There’s something really happening here.”
Part of that momentum is generated by Manjack’s decision to become one of the business owners in the shopping center.
Arlington Bait & Tackle Fishing, or ABT Fishing as it is known, at 983 University Blvd N., was operating when the renovation started. It was one of the few businesses that made it from Town & Country’s transition to College Park.
Manjack said the bait shop was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. He saw dozens of disappointed customers, and decided to make an offer to buy the shop from Bill and Carmen Lamb, who owned it for 20 years. The husband and wife had purchased it from the original owners, who ran the shop for 25 years.
They started discussions in January 2023 and closed the deal and assumed control in June.
Manjack, who declined to say how much he paid for the business, said he has reinvigorated the customer base.
It has gone so well, he said, that he pitched opening a coffee shop next door. JWB agreed to lease him the space and construction of First Gear Coffee shop is underway.
Partner Jessica Rodriguez said she was skeptical when Manjack first talked about relocating from Florida’s West Coast to run the businesses in Jacksonville.
“Definitely the first impression was a little off-putting. There was nothing here. It kind of looked deserted,” she said.
“But over the course of this project happening, it’s really blossomed into something beautiful. You see the community coming out more. You see the real people that are here,” she said.
“I believe in Dan’s vision. I’ve seen what he’s done in the past and there’s a lot of trust in the process.”
Manjack and Rodriguez are a couple as well as business partners.
With the success of the bait and tackle shop, Manjack said he approached JWB about renovating vacant space next door into First Gear Coffee shop.
JWB officials agreed and the construction is underway of First Gear.
Two key developments in recent months gave Manjack additional optimism.
The first was the grand opening in September of the Winn-Dixie supermarket at the northwest end of the shopping center.
The opening received local media coverage and spurred buzz about Arlington’s possible renewal.
It came on the heels of the demolition of the old Thunderbird Motor Hotel and Dinner Theatre just east of College Park.
Though the hotel had sentimental value in Jacksonville as host to notable entertainers into the 1970s, the building became an eyesore. Its dilapidated shell had attracted homeless people seeking refuge.
Manjack said those turnarounds, along with the resurfacing of the Arlington Expressway and improvements to University Boulevard stretching north to Jacksonville University, convinced him Arlington is on its way to a rebirth.
“Just seeing this area turn, it’s just amazing,” he said.
Manjack said College Park will be a catalyst for larger renewal in Arlington, considered one of Jacksonville’s first suburbs.