A decade ago, this magazine’s current art director, Shan Stumpf, and I were living in Orlando, working for that city’s alt-weekly. Orlando was changing, and pretty rapidly, though it took some time and distance for us to see how radical this change actually was. Some of it was policy-driven, some not. The city’s new mayor, an energetic, ambitious Democrat named Buddy Dyer, made it his mission to redevelop a moribund urban core, often through massive incentive packages. He pushed through tax credits for a downtown movie theater/condo high-rise. He manufactured a billion-dollar deal to build a new performing arts center, basketball arena and football stadium renovation. He created a task force charged with luring people and businesses into the city’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. He championed commuter rail, which only recently became a reality.
That’s not to say Buddy was perfect. In fact, I was among his fiercest critics. Those development deals, for instance, always seemed to somehow or another benefit his buddies and contributors. The venues package he orchestrated, especially the $480 million arena, built at the behest of Amway billionaire Rich DeVos, was corporate welfare at its most egregious. But, as I admitted in a piece I wrote for Orlando Weekly last year, shortly before I took this job and moved to Jacksonville, while you can critique how Buddy did it, you couldn’t deny that he’d gotten things done.
More important, beyond the city government’s purview, things were changing, too. Orlando’s arts and food and booze scenes were blowing up, first-rate music festivals were taking shape, the University of Central Florida was becoming a behemoth, and an infusion of young, entrepreneurial energy was altering Orlando’s business landscape.
Today Orlando is a different place than the one I wrote about all those years ago, a more dynamic place, a place that, while perhaps not “world-class” (to use Buddy’s favorite phrase), is at least “next level” (hat tip, Alvin Brown).
Shan and I were talking about that recently — not really reminiscing, but rather remarking on how similar Jacksonville in 2014 feels to the Orlando of 2004. We have an albeit-imperfect mayor committed to the urban core (and whose budget reflects that), a surprisingly vibrant arts scene, a breed of young visionaries who see unfulfilled potential all around them, an emerging foodie and drinking culture, once-blighted neighborhoods like Brooklyn and Springfield poised to become home to young, urban professionals, businesses eyeballing major investments (e.g., Shad Khan’s aims on The Shipyards, the proposed aquarium, the long-overdue Landing overhaul) — the elements are all there, and just as in Orlando a decade ago, they’re taking shape both inside and outside City Hall.
I’ve learned in the eight months or so I’ve called Jacksonville home that it’s trite and tired to say that this city is “on the cusp.” People have been saying that for years, and there have been years of disappointment. But hang in there: We’ve seen this story play out all over the country — not just in Orlando, which was following a well-worn script. The trend toward urbanism and sustainability seems more or less inexorable. So, long story short: Keep your chin up, Jacksonville, and keep working. Good things are right around the corner. Other cities’ histories will repeat themselves here.