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Efforts continue to lure people back to Jacksonville's downtown

Downtown a business hub, but needs something to keep people around after work

Posted: June 23, 2014 - 5:27pm  |  Updated: June 23, 2014 - 7:05pm

To many people, downtown Jacksonville looks like one of two cities: Either a quiet district creating the groundwork for a bright future, or a sluggish area struggling to meet its potential.

Regardless of the perspective, revitalization of the urban core has been a hot topic in Jacksonville for decades.

Residents ask: When will revitalization happen? What needs to happen before downtown is revitalized? What does revitalization really mean?

The current state of downtown Jacksonville’s revitalization is one of high energy and enthusiastic plans.

Several projects are in the works to create venues for businesses and cultural events, as well as plans for parking garages and public transit.

The developments are seen as Jacksonville’s turning point by some, but some are skeptical about whether the projects are enough to turn downtown into a bustling destination.

Jacksonville’s urban core started losing its residents, stores and shops as far back as the 1920s, but that exodus sped up in the 1960s, said Alan Bliss, a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of North Florida.

“All of the substantial retailers, local and chains, left for the malls: Regency, the Avenues and more recently, the St. Johns Town Center,” he said. “What’s been left behind has lacked vibrant and successful businesses and downtown residents.”

Racial tension in downtown communities during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s also contributed to residents moving to suburbs, but it certainly wasn’t entirely the driving force, he said.

“People need to gain the experience that it is a safe place to be, a safe place to live, it has attracted businesses and opportunity, and downtown Jacksonville has a spectacular asset that very few cities have, and that is the St. Johns River,” Bliss said.

The downtown area has remained a hub for business, even as the area has struggled with retail and cultural affairs. Local organizations and public officials are hoping to turn that around.

The city’s central downtown public space, Hemming Plaza, will get a face lift from non-profit Friends of Hemming Park. The non-profit will receive an 18-month, $1 million management contract, the city announced last week.

The non-profit plans to clean up the park and facilitate weekly cultural events, such as an outdoor reading room or art exhibits, said Wayne Wood, Friends of Hemming Park chairman.

The Laura Street Trio is being developed by SouthEast Development Group to become a hotel and two restaurants, a project that will cost $40 million in all. The historic Barnett Bank building, also bought by the SouthEast Development Group, will become a center for university education and student housing.

The Haydon Burns Library also is being renovated to preserve and use a historic building. The Jessie Ball duPont Fund is fixing up the former library with office space and a grand hall.

The spring, One Spark Jacksonville brought 250,000 people to downtown during the five-day festival for residents to meet with entrepreneurs and enjoy music and art.

“There’s a lot of talk about just getting started, but I think 10 years from now, when we look at this time, we’ll say it had already started,” said Lisa Goodrich, director of marketing and community engagement at SouthEast Development Group and a member of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.

The efforts are large in some ways, such as the renovation of several historic buildings, while others are small but hope to change the atmosphere downtown.

On a hot day last week, about 20 people sat in Hemming Plaza and lounged in deck chairs under umbrellas to eat their lunches.

Goodrich started a twice-monthly lunch gathering of young professionals at the plaza last fall as a way to get people used to hanging out at the plaza.

The idea was simple, she said: “We just have to show up and use the park.”

Nearby, Mike Field started a monthly vendors’ market with food, music and store booths for records and other goods on the corner of Adams Street and Laura Street. The Jaxsons Night Market was created as a way to get downtown professionals to hang out in the area after work.

He said there aren’t many places for people to walk around and eat, shop and drink downtown, although more bars and nightlife venues have slowly started to appear.

“If you were in a mall, if you were walking by a lot of empty storefronts, you’d turn around and go home. It’s the same thing downtown,” he said. “There’s a long way to go, but I’m very optimistic we can get there in a relatively short period of time. The bones are all there, we just have to fill those gaps.”

The issues Jacksonville faces — expanding transportation, diversifying the types of businesses that open and increasing public interest in downtown as an iconic venue — are all issues other cities across the nation are tackling, said Krista Paulsen, chairwoman of University of North Florida’s Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work Department.

“It’s the multibillion-dollar question,” she said. “How do you get people there?”

Santa Barbara, Calif., struggled getting residents interested in spending time downtown, so it created incentives for movie theaters to open downtown, Paulsen said.

“That became the impetus and draw that got people downtown,” she said.

Downtown Jacksonville is still waiting for that big break, Wood said, but he feels the area is well on its way.

“We have not hit that home run yet that everyone suddenly changes their attitude that downtown is the most desirable place to go in our city,” he said. “Everyone is starting to do their part, and it’s coming together miraculously all at one time.”

Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161

Comments (11)

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Orchbass 06/24/14 - 01:46 pm
Premium Member
The answer is to hang many

The answer is to hang many brightly colored banners around the downtown area and come up with a catchy slogan for downtown. If that would happen, I'd predict a new Renaissance for downtown Jacksonville!

Noillusions 06/24/14 - 11:57 am
Now here's a Question worth

Now here's a Question worth asking...Do any of the Clueless Idiots go to other cities & towns?

Go to Nashville, Charlotte, Louisville, Chattanooga even Savannah. Most if not all these cities have a very "Happening Downtown" & above all the Taxpayer has not WASTED a Billion + Dollars on silliness. The Taxpayer actually sees a ROI!!!!!
It's called Tourism, Corporate Growth / Headquarters, Industry Influx, Hotels, Motels, Convention Centers, Quality of Life, Real Estate appreciation, Real Transit Systems, more than one "loop" around the city, airport growth, etc.

If you recall a couple / three years ago, some City Center Guru Group evaluated jax's dt. They spent several weeks in the process & they could not go to the rest room without the local media pestering them. Everyone thought they had all the answers...if they did they left jax without answering any, or maybe they just gave up.
I believe they were sponsored by IBM, Xerox, or some major Corporation like that. I'm sure someone else remembers the group.

Noillusions 06/24/14 - 04:15 pm
> Q: When will revitalization

> Q: When will revitalization happen? Answer: Likely not in our lifetimes.
> Q: What needs to happen before downtown is revitalized? Answer: Get rid of the CLUELESS IDIOTS that WASTE Taxpayer money on silliness, kiddie pools, scoreboard, Skyride, water taxis, unfinished sidewalks (riverwalks), clean up downtown & let private business take over.

> Q: When will revitalization happen? When the PRIVATE SECTOR sees fit to invest in dt.
> Q:What does revitalization really mean? See above.

> Q:The current state of downtown Jacksonville’s revitalization is one of high energy and enthusiastic plans. WHERE DO THESE IDIOTS COME FROM & DO THEY THINK THE AVERAGE CITIZEN IS AS CLUELESS AS THEY ARE?

> Several projects are in the works to create venues for businesses and cultural events, as well as plans for parking garages and public transit.

How's that working out?

Othello 06/24/14 - 10:49 am
Premium Member
Put Corrine Brown on a water

Put Corrine Brown on a water taxi downtown. That will bring people and businesses downtown. At least that is what the mayor and city hall thinks.

tinman 06/24/14 - 09:13 am
Premium Member
If you have to put this much

If you have to put this much effort into coaxing people to go downtown, that should be a big red flag telling you that you are wasting time and money.

Two things really anger me about these efforts. 1) The city obsesses over this but refuses to court any real industry. Shipping and manufacturing would provide the tax revenue to support these pet projects. 2) Every customer/patron/club goer that they entice to go downtown is one less customer for an existing business in another part of town. Imagine learning that your tax dollars are used to take away your business. The city is picking who wins and who loses, and that is just wrong.

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