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Politics

Debate Rages: When Will Jax Downtown Development be Done?

March 1, 2015 - 6:00pm

In the 1940s, downtown Jacksonville was a mess. Most of the buildings were small, old and dingy. The waterfront was replete with rotting warehouses and piers.

Haydon Burns became mayor and shrewdly began what he called the Jacksonville Story, bringing new major businesses to downtown, cleaning up the waterfront and building impressive new government buildings there.

It looked good, although it was the wrong place for the public buildings. Still, it helped propel Burns into the governor's office.

Downtown was oriented north and south along Main Street. It was not until after consolidation, in the 1970s, that people began to realize what an asset the St. Johns River was and reorient their vision toward the river. In 1974 a major convocation of civic leaders concluded that downtown redevelopment was the No. 1 priority for the city government.

Efforts began to move public buildings off expensive property that would attract not only businesses but residential property. The consolidated government did the grunt work of building infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, and roads.

Then in the 1990s, a succession of mayors began huge public works projects throughout the city.

First there was River City Renaissance, a $235 million bond program that turned one of the city's major department stores (already shuttered) into Jacksonville's new City Hall, and the transformation of the Jacksonville Civic Auditorium into a center for the performing arts. There were Gator Bowl renovations and money was spent for the Sulzbacher Center for the homeless, extension of the Jacksonville Riverwalk, and improvements to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

This was followed by the Better Jacksonville Plan, a whopping $2.25 billion package of projects, including road resurfacing and widening, a palatial new library, courthouse, arena, baseball stadium and a $25 million equestrian center. Unfortunately, the cost of the grandiloquent new courthouse was low balled, setting off a 10-year-fight that almost doubled the cost.

Next came the Jacksonville Journey. This was some kind of crime-fighting fantasy with an enormous cost of $36 million the first year. This so alarmed people that it was quickly cut back to $30 million a year. Still there is doubt about its efficacy.

In short, although politicians continue to moan about the need to spend money on the downtown section in particular and public projects in general, billions have been spent and the appearance of downtown has changed drastically over the past 50 years -- even as business and commercial development has moved to the suburbs, where the people are. Downtown is no longer where people go for shopping and entertainment as they did in the 1940s. It is mostly a government center and today, with the Internet, fewer people need to actually visit government buildings.

Those seeking to find fault with the current mayor on this score were set back when Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan announced he would attempt to renovate the remaining problem area of the waterfront the site of the old shipyards.

Khan has the best of motives: it would turn a profit for him. The area also is the last remaining blight around the stadium where his team plays and the complex of office, residences and parks he describes would be a great benefit to the city unless politicians are maneuvered into picking up a larger share of the cost than necessary. Khan wants 43 acres of prime waterfront land, environmentally sanitized, but he would share the profits with the city.

Downtown redevelopment is an undercurrent in the mayor's race in Jacksonville. Well-heeled Republicans who supported incumbent Alvin Brown over a fiscal conservative four years ago left him this year for Lenny Curry, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

The real fight is over funding. Brown thinks he can continue without raising taxes but Curry supporters say there is a recurring $40 million hole in the budget related to the city employee pension problem and that the money has to come from somewhere.

They also dispute Brown's claim that he has not raised taxes. They say he submitted a budget to the City Council that did not balance and Brown did not veto the budget after the council raised the tax rate to bring it in balance.

Another issue is the number of cops. The sheriff, now supporting Curry, claims his force has been cut by 147 officers, out of a force of 1,600. In any case, no one has ever established a link between the number of cops and the crime rate.

Fun fact, per the citys budget: In 2007 there were 1,591 sworn officers and 4,605 daily police calls for service. In 2015, there were 1,572 sworn officers to handle 2,463 calls

But, in addition to the funding issue there is the question of downtown. Several of the Republicans who switched from Brown to Curry are developers. Curry supporters say it is not a matter of personal profit to them but the image of Jacksonville that the downtown area represents.

Brown has a developer link as well. One of his top supporters is the owner of the Jacksonville Landing, a major commercial venture on the riverfront.

When it came to Jacksonville in 1987 the Landing was to be another catalyst for downtown, likened to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. That never happened, in part because the city welched on commitments it had made to the original developer concerning parking.

But while the downtown has been transformed, major office and commercial development has been occurring all across the 840-square-mile city, from the large, upscale St. Johns Town Center in the south to the River City Marketplace on the north side.

Just this week, Brown signed legislation designating the Downtown Investment Authority as the development agency for downtown, cleverly noting it would empower the DIA to move important projects forward, such as redevelopment of the Shipyards, and The Jacksonville Landing.
At the same time he talked about how it would revitalize the heart of our city.

A key player in the race is Peter Rummell, former head of the St. Joe Co. and the Jacksonville Civic Council. He spurned Hogan in 2011 and put $150,000 into Browns campaign, telling one person that the city had to have a black mayor. Rummell recently bought the site of the JEAs former Southside Generating Station for a large development and now backs Curry, saying Brown lacks courage.

He also supports the proposed human rights amendment that is another factor in the race. Brown has been vague on the contentious issue and Curry has mumbled a response to the question in a public forum. Third candidate Bill Bishop is in favor. It would add protection for homosexuals, and already has been voted down once by the City Council.

Curry and Brown are tied in polls, according to one source, but Curry is said to be planning a late blitz of negative ads he hopes will cement his victory.

His website and mailings are scarce on substance. He wants to reduce crime (the sheriffs job) and ensure fairness in education (the school boards job), as well as reclaim our citys greatness. Those sources also fail to mention the human rights ordinance or take any hard stand against new taxes, although his supporters said Curry made that clear in a press release.

The problem is no one reads press releases. And the liberal media are not likely to use any of a Republicans press release unless it is to take something out of context that would make him look bad.

Currys negative ads may do the trick but he would gain more support from conservatives if he spelled out how he hopes to balance the budget without substantial tax increases, and if he would ask the council to raise taxes -- how he plans to use the new money. If it is to continue gussying up downtown at the expense of city services, he may be making his quest more difficult.

Lloyd Brown was in the newspaper business nearly 50 years, beginning as a copy boy and retiring as editorial page editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. After retirement he served as a policy analyst for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

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