Earlier this month, Jaguars owner Shad Khan voiced an interest in the Shipyards property. Not a moment too soon. For virtually the entire century thus far, there have been plans for the Shipyards — plans that have not come to fruition.
"I've said all along, Jacksonville has great potential. Developing the north bank of the riverfront would go a long way toward achieving our potential," Khan said in a statement. "A new life for the Shipyards would be good news for the Jaguars, EverBank
Field, the Sports Complex and all of Downtown Jacksonville."
Indeed it would. As Jacksonville grows, it still faces the challenge of igniting Downtown, making it more than just a place to work, visit a club, go to a Monster Truck rally or see a concert at The Florida Theatre. To become the city that city planners, major stakeholders, many residents and visitors envision, we have to maximize the potential of underused parcels of land and resources. Certainly, Khan — comfortably ensconced on the Forbes 400 — has the resources and wherewithal to do that. And he has the motivation.
Consider the constant grousing in recent years about the Jaguars gameday experience. There are some who complain about the traffic to and from the game (and many of those folks have never tried to see the New England Patriots at Foxboro Stadium or the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, two spots where the commute can be prohibitive for a variety of reasons). I remember a sports blogger who said Shad Khan should build a stadium on the Southside because it would be better situated for Jags fans making the trek from Nocatee and other outposts. Such complaints lack merit and seem provincial. However, there are other, more legitimate issues with the Jaguars gameday experience.
Consider what there is — or isn't — Downtown. After a Sunday game, traffic patterns and local habits dictate that people are going to get the heck out of Downtown back to their suburban sanctuaries as quickly as possible. Businesses on Bay Street, such as Underbelly or Club TSI, that might benefit from postgame revelry, don't get what they should out of it. There simply isn't enough going on Downtown to keep anyone there before or after a Jaguars game (insert requisite Gertrude Stein "there's no there there" quip here). This can change with proper development — the sort that Khan has a singular ability to provide.
What could be done with the Shipyards? Just about anything — condominiums, hotels, shopping — and parking to accommodate all of it, of course. There have been master plans for Downtown development since the 1970s, when the rage was elevated walkways connecting the department stores of that era. But back then, Downtown lacked the economic engine and the driving force of an NFL franchise — and it certainly lacked anyone local, like Khan, with pockets deep enough to turn visions into reality.
Yes, there are condos, restaurants and hotels Downtown already. But what works in North America are discrete entertainment districts, ones where synergy is generated from a larger engine (like a stadium) and circulates downward. I saw it in Washington, D.C., when the MCI Center was built and drove transformative development. Why not here with a stadium that already exists? The Shipyards location bridges the Sports Complex with the entertainment district. Handled correctly, it would be an aorta for economic growth.
What benefits now from Jaguars postgame celebrations? In large part — and surprisingly, considering that it's quite a trek from the stadium — The Jacksonville Landing. The facility is going into its fourth decade of service and looks it. While I have no issue with the food at places like Hooters or Chicago Pizza, I'd be lying if I said we maximized the potential of our NFL franchise the way Tampa-St. Petersburg is ready to do with its MLB franchise. Potentially, the Rays could move to a "better" location — and all they have to do is build a new stadium.
We don't have that issue in Jacksonville. We have a perfectly good facility with an owner who will ensure that there are sufficient resources to keep it up to industry standards. And when that owner says he wants to invest in any local resource, it is in our better interest to make that happen.
The Shipyards offer so much potential of the kind that could mean another Super Bowl bid for Jacksonville down the road. Not enough hotels? That problem could be fixed. Not enough downtown amenities? Likewise, a solution may be in sight. Add to that the domino effect of development spurring further development, and it seems that Khan taking an interest in the Shipyards property could be what we've been waiting for all along. Now we'll play the waiting game and see if Khan and the mayor's office can make it happen sooner rather than later.