I visited Downtown Jacksonville for the first time when I was 21 years old.

 

Well, that’s not entirely true.

Technically, my first time Downtown was when I was much younger, toddling around in Velcro-strap sneakers at the beginning of the end of its heyday when The Jacksonville Landing was still considered a destination and when river taxi rides were reason enough to pile everyone into the car for a trip to the metropolitan core.

But my first real time Downtown wasn’t until 2014 when I covered One Spark along with a small group of fellow University of North Florida journalism students — all of whom were just as bewildered as I was.

Like many others on the First Coast, we’d scarcely made our way Downtown. So we spent most of our first afternoon there marveling at the murals and one-way streets, Hemming Park, the library and parking meters — not unlike tourists visiting New York City or planet Earth for the first time.

Up until then, we’d been predisposed to the easy entertainment that often presented itself to us at the Beaches, the St. Johns Town Center and the mall without the 20-minute commute of going Downtown.

In fact, Downtown simply never came up in suggestions for weekend plans or as a destination for out-of-towners.

Why would I bother bringing anyone I wanted to impress to the unbeating heart of the city when every other part of Jacksonville offered shopping, sights and entertainment for half the hassle?


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A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

But working on a student-run news bureau dedicated to covering One Spark — a crowdfunding festival that was the first of its kind in the world — made me re-examine my perspective. Of all the places in the world, a walking festival-style curation of artists, entrepreneurs and creators existed on the First Coast?

In Downtown Jacksonville, no less?

I missed One Spark’s inaugural 2013 event, which saw some 130,000 attendees and more than 400 creators touting wares, services and ideas.

But the second festival in 2014 put me in the middle of the action and deeper into Downtown than I’d ever been.

One Spark 2014 set records of its own, boasting double the attendees, more than 600 registered creator projects and about 120,000 votes cast for those projects, which was more than twice the number cast in 2013. And covering an event of that caliber was electrifying: I would have never imagined that many people gathering downtown — or being among them.


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The festival earned Jacksonville accolades from Forbes and CNN, and it was even compared to the likes of SXSW.

The energy and implications of the attention charged the crowd with an optimism I’ve felt to this day each time I recognize a new business in the area.

Of course, the festival wasn’t without its shortcomings. Despite yet another record-setting event in 2015 that would see more than 50,000 additional attendees and about $40,000 more in crowdfunding support, the festival’s future became uncertain. Organizational issues, the cost of operation and decreases in funding caused the five-day festival to fizzle to just two days in 2016 — and with significantly less hoopla than before.

Now One Spark has become yet another distant initiative regarded with the same brand of guarded cynicism that many other attempts to revitalize Downtown have earned.

But this October, residents will see a revitalized One Spark. The officially dubbed “Innovation Festival” will move to EverBank Field Oct. 5 to 7 for an event less financially straining but still dedicated to fostering the entrepreneurial spirit that made it possible at all.

Its resurrection deserves a chance.

The lasting impact of a festival dedicated to bringing attention to an all-but-overlooked part of the city and the sheer creative force of area residents is immeasurable.

The impression that it left on me and undoubtedly many others has been enough to get me Downtown — on my own initiative — on several occasions.

It has left enough of an impression to have me singing the praises of the large-scale art, local eateries and unique neighborhoods to friends and family and persuading them to make the trip.

It has left enough of an impression to get me exploring Downtown areas that I would have otherwise driven past without a second glance.

In a lot of ways, One Spark has paid off — maybe not in the ways most had hoped, but in exposure for Downtown.

The payoff has come in bringing hundreds of thousands of people to Jacksonville’s epicenter, many of whom hadn’t been Downtown in decades and others who’d never been at all.

The payoff has come in making those visitors feel so excited about what they saw and experienced Downtown that they still talk about it.

And that — in and of itself — remains a commendable feat.

 

Jasmine Marshall is a 2015 journalism graduate of the University of North Florida. She is a photographer and freelance journalist.