The latest component of a longterm Jacksonville University plan to help revitalize its Arlington neighborhood focuses on a four-acre piece of JU-owned land now occupied by only trees and litter.
But JU has leased most of the property to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Florida for a $2.5 million teen club, which will also function as a laboratory of sorts for various JU academic programs and as a community meeting place.
The new club’s expected high use and visibility — on busy University Boulevard at Justina Terrace, a few blocks north of the campus’s main entrance — could spark other redevelopment in the area, said JU president Tim Cost and clubs president and CEO Paul Martinez, both JU graduates.
“It could be a catalyst,” said Martinez. “This is going to be the new beacon in the community.”
Martinez and Cost both graduated from JU in the early 1980s and remember their time there fondly.
“That four years was a transformative time,” said Cost. “There could not have been a better time to be at JU. … It was a great school. I feel it can be again.”
He thinks Arlington, where the community has deteriorated and the economy and families struggle, can be great again too. He remembered running through Arlington, as part of his baseball-team training.
“We didn’t have the facilities, they told you to go run. Seven miles every day,” he said. “I was from New York … Never saw this much green. I believe I got to know at least visually how beautiful Arlington was.”
But the community deteriorated and its economy and families struggle.
Cost, who became JU president in 2013, has focused on outreach since his return and wants the college to play a leading role in restoring the community. Also, JU wants to open itself up more to the community, rather than be the college behind the gate, said senior vice president Michael P. Fleming.
Fleming noted the comment made by Steve Matchett, of the Old Arlington neighborhood improvement group, that “JU had been bleached from the fabric of Arlington.” The college wants back into that fabric, he said.
“Now we are working for the benefit of Arlington. We want to make an investment in the community,” he said.
That’s why JU is leasing the University Boulevard property — valued at $850,000 — to the nonprofit Boys & Girls Clubs for $1 a year for 50 years.
The partnership came together when Cost discovered Martinez was also in Jacksonville and set up a meeting. They discussed the details while shooting hoops in their suits and ties at a club gym.
The Boys & Girls Clubs has an existing presence in Arlington — with the Woodland Acres Club, Arlington Community Academy Club and programs at three elementary schools and a middle school. The 12- to 18-age group needed attention, said Martinez, who attended a Boys & Girls Club program as a child.
“We serve ages 6 to 18. But six- and seven-year-olds aren’t shooting each other,” he said. “Teens don’t have a place to go after school. That teenage demographic needs a safe place.”
The agency’s first teen club is to open in fall 2018 in Springfield.
Cost offered up the vacant University Boulevard land for the second and Martinez started fundraising for construction and operations. About $1 million has already been raised and the teen club is expected to open in 2019. It will be named the Jacksonville University Boys & Girls Club.
Programs will range from academic help and anti-bullying classes to robotics and entrepreneurship. A warehouse-like design will have a “young, hip vibe,” Martinez said.
“Teens vote with their feet. If they don’t like the place, they’re not going to show up. … If we do what we are supposed to do, we will make a connections with the kids just like the connections I made [as a student] at JU.”
Cost and Martinez envision the teen club as a busy place seven days week.
Afterschool time will be for teens, who will have JU students available as mentors. During mornings and early afternoons, students and faculty from JU’s education, nutrition and mental health counseling degree programs will be on site in a variety of community outreach projects.
Also, Martinez hopes a church will use the facility on Sundays.
“It’s going to be awesome. You’re not going to be able to pass by and not say, ‘wow,’ “ he said. “Best of both worlds.”
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109