BACKPAGE EDITORIAL

THE FORGOTTEN COMMUNITY

The city should focus financial incentives on the Northwest just like it does on the Southside

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The Northwest Quadrant of Jacksonville has a long and historic story of economic neglect by City Hall. Its earliest actions of intentional demise can be traced to the efforts to consolidate city and county governments. Prior to consolidation, the Northwest Quadrant was a thriving area of economic, political and educational pride for its residents. After consolidation, the Northwest Quadrant began losing control of its destiny. Once consolidation was formalized, the economic focus moved to the Southside. The Northwest Quadrant became the Forgotten Community.

Visual evidence of this can be witnessed by taking a drive down Southside Boulevard. Everything you might want in terms of food, services and entertainment can be obtained. The economic pipeline was shut off from the Northwest Quadrant and redirected to the Southside in full force to create the economic disparity we have today. A January article by the Times-Union's David Bauerlein offered a vivid account of the Forgotten Community: "The Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Trust Fund's only expenditure was $400,000 … at the same time, the city's other economic development programs have … deals committing millions in the city funding, mainly for companies located on the Southside. … In Northwest Jacksonville neighborhoods where residents struggle to find jobs, a city program dedicated to economic development in those areas has little to show for itself in the past two years."

Terrance Ashanta-Barker, past director of the city's Neighborhoods Department, was appointed by Mayor Alvin Brown from out of town to manage the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Trust Fund. The sobering truth is, Barker committed only $400,000 to the Northwest to start a meat-processing operation, while $7 million was available in the Fund. Since 2011, however, "The City Council has approved economic development deals that committed the city to about $15 million in incentives," Bauerlein reported. Barker said the "city needed the time to chart a long-term future for the program."

The facts speak for themselves.

The Forgotten Community's economic situation is amplified by the recent 2013 disparity study, which was preceded by a 1990 disparity study; the economic gap has not improved in the past two decades. Presently, the city's solution to economic disparity in its contracts is a program called Jacksonville Small and Emerging Business (JSEB) [News, "The Usual Suspects," Susan Cooper Eastman, March 26]. JSEB is and has been race- and gender-neutral since its inception in 2004. This program was designed as an alternative to the set-asides for minority- and women-owned businesses in Jacksonville. The economic realities we see in the Forgotten Community today are begging, crying and screaming for a remedy from the city and its independent agencies — a race- and gender-conscious approach to contracting.

Strong, decisive political leadership is required from Mayor Brown and the City Council to address and change the current policy that has guided this city and its agencies for the last decade. The two most recent disparity studies in 1990 and 2013 provide the legal foundation to radically alter contracting policies from race- and gender-neutral to race- and gender-conscious. Mayor Brown and the City Council have the political responsibility to ensure this economic transformation takes place, and a rare opportunity to take our city to the next level of economic progress.

We've been stuck too long in the economic quicksands of yesterday that have created the situational reality of the Forgotten Community. The political answer should look like this: Brown's political leadership must take the form of clear, specific recommendations for legislative action to change the race- and gender-neutral contracting policies. The City Council must have the intestinal fortitude to do what should have been done 24 years ago, and place us on a contemporary path of economic progress on which our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren can continue to build a future that is race- and gender-conscious, not race- and gender-neutral. The current policy needs a legislative overhaul. The enactment of new laws can provide a remedy for the Forgotten Community, but only if the mayor and the council have the moral courage to do what is best for the future of our city.

Brown frequently says, "I am the mayor of all of Jacksonville." The Northwest Quadrant needs his action, not his words, to make this true. What does the Northwest Quadrant need from our mayor? It needs leadership instead of a paralysis of analysis within his administration. Brown must offer bills with a renewed focus on the Northwest Quadrant comparable to the economic financial incentives available on the Southside.

The Northwest Quadrant needs to be transformed from a food desert into a place where residents can access quality, healthy foods. Partnerships with Walmart and other companies to have food markets built in this community would make this transformation possible. Transforming the numerous deserted warehouses there into profitable sources of value for job creation, training and education would also make a difference. Mayor Brown's leadership in staffing and hiring someone to direct the city's Brownfields and Land Revitalization Program will establish infrastructure for rebuilding.

Mayor Brown and the City Council have a fantastic opportunity prior to the forthcoming 2015 election to stop the Northwest Quadrant from remaining the Forgotten Community. 

Gray is chairman of the Jacksonville chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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