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Divide & Conquer

Developer wages turf war in Murray Hill

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The old saying that “good fences make good neighbors” has so far proven untrue along the 1100 block of Edgewood Avenue in the heart of Murray Hill. This would not be the first time that Jacksonville has defied conventional wisdom, nor the first case of internecine strife in one of the River City’s historical districts. But something about this situation was weird and different, and that is the only thing that all involved can agree on. Thankfully, this story has a happy ending, and it speaks to the power of community, and the ways in which social media can contribute to the public good.

After decades spent under the development radar, a rapid influx of youthful energy has generated unprecedented business growth in the Murray Hill neighborhood, and with it a similar spike in positive media attention. All of that came to (literally) a screeching halt earlier this month with the abrupt arrival of a single chain-link fence. The barrier jeopardized at least four local businesses, and created a wave of negative publicity that obviated years of branding and careful urban planning, throwing an entire community into temporary chaos.

The epicenter of this controversy was the alley behind Perfect Rack Billiards, one of the neighborhood’s oldest and most popular establishments. They sell beer, wine and food, but the latter was imperiled when Sleiman Enterprises, a deeply entrenched Jacksonville developer that owns the stores next door (and everywhere else, for that matter), installed a fence that cut off access to Perfect Rack’s dumpster. It became impossible to continue selling food. Food service ceased that Monday, Nov. 11, putting several of their employees out of work, and it was unclear how long they would be able to last without that revenue.

The reasons for the fence were never stated explicitly, and no effort was made to resolve the issue in any way. The tight-knit Murray Hill community was up in arms upon the announcement, and conspiracy theories abounded. It didn’t help that Sleiman Enterprises CEO Toney Sleiman had already achieved a level of infamy following his controversial deal with Mayor Lenny Curry in February, which essentially meant the end of the Jacksonville Landing. The internet was quickly flooded with cautionary tales told by folks who’d had their own dealings with the company over the years, and every local media outlet jumped on the story.

A few days later, on Nov. 12, the strip received an unannounced visit from the fire marshal, who cited the fence as a fire hazard. Based on that, Perfect Rack was temporarily closed down, along with three other nearby businesses: Beautifully Divine DIY Workshop, Blackhat Vapor and Buchner’s Bierhalle, which had just opened a few weeks earlier. Blackhat and Buchner’s occupy the same space, leased from Goin' Coastal Properties.

While city officials, business owners and community leaders labored together to craft some kind of workable solution, the community began taking matters into its own hands. Most of the big chatter has occurred on the #mappingjax Facebook group started by Steve Williams, whose launch we covered a few weeks ago. Liz McKenzie has started a petition on Change.org, while Harley Michael Henry has started a GoFundMe seeking $25,000 toward what has now become branded as #fencegate. (I would’ve gone with #gategate, but I guess it’s better to save that for something else.) Both efforts achieved their goals within hours of their launch.

Thankfully, a solution did materialize in fairly short order, as the affected businesses effectively made an end-run around the Sleiman crew to devise alternative means of access. Perfect Rack struck a deal with Goin’ Coastal Properties on Nov. 16, which will allow them to use their back lot to access the dumpster. Sleiman raised no objection to that, so everything was back to normal by that weekend, with all sides seemingly satisfied. Whether anything else happens later remains unclear, but rumor is that Sleiman has designs on this valuable property, so we’ll see.

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