Dedicated to Downtown

by Erin Thursby
Like Jacksonville itself, our downtown is a sprawling area. But the city and Downtown Vision, Inc. have smartly narrowed their development, focusing on the walkable core before branching out. This urban core has grown and improved in the past two years. New bars, new businesses, expansions, events, new cityscaping and maintenance are all part of the positive changes EU is covering in our Downtown issue.
Downtown Vision, Inc. has worked with a lot of individuals, organizations and businesses to make Downtown a better place to live work and play. In the past year they’ve been the driving force behind many improvements, keeping the city center vibrant.
“Downtown Jacksonville, the heart of our city, continues to make progress despite historic economic challenges,” says Pamela Elms, Director of Marketing at DVI.
A pedestrian friendly Downtown has been one of the things DVI has pushed for. The city is now working on improving that on Laura and Bay Street. Better signage, historical plaques, directional kiosks and cobblestone pavers are some of the things they’ll be installing.
Mayor Peyton was quoted on as saying: “We believe this public realm initiative will pay for itself in economic growth in downtown Jacksonville by attracting more capital investment and encouraging workers, residents and visitors to locate in this great area.”
Other slated Downtown facelifts include the revamping of Friendship Fountain (improving the antiquated pump system, pulling out the concrete in favor of lawn and park amenities), updating the Southbank Riverwalk and Metropolitan Park.
Beyond these larger-scale, city projects, Downtown Vision, Inc. has had a more direct hand in smaller, urban core improvement.
Knowing that perceived safety was also a Downtown issue, DVI has opened up dialogues with the Sheriff for more police presence. The Downtown Ambassadors also provide a measure of safety and security, filling the gaps the police can’t always cover. Maintaining good lighting and system of reporting broken or spent street lights are also part of heightening Downtown security.
Clean, well-maintained sidewalks are part of Downtown Vision’s effort to boost the perception of the area. This year, they turned over management of both the Downtown Ambassadors and the Downtown Clean Team Programs to Service Group, Inc.
“For eight years we managed the program in-house, and yet we still needed to do more,” says Terry Lorince, Executive Director of DVI.
To that end, they turned things over to SGI, a company that has managed clean and safe programs in other cities. This move has made it possible for the Ambassadors to pick up trash as they patrol the sidewalks, something that insurance liabilities didn’t allow them to do in the past.
In addition to these small maintenance jobs, new, green cleaning equipment has also been requisitioned. The HydroTek T-220 is a pressure washer that can remove gum from the sidewalk. Other pressure washers and even an outdoor vacuum make walking Downtown more pleasant. The streets in the core are noticeably cleaner and better maintained than they were a year ago.
“Having a clean Downtown is step one in Downtown revitalization. It shows we take pride in Jacksonville and we care about this neighborhood,” says Lorince.
Cleaning isn’t the only thing DVI has done in the past year to keep up the appearance of Downtown. A few blocks of Forsyth, Adams and Ocean Street were all part of a Great Streets demonstration. Businesses paid for 60 hanging flower baskets in the grid (which the Ambassador teams water daily) and DVI mulched tree beds, wrapped parking meters and enlisted AIGA artists to paint a mural.
But it hasn’t been the working storefronts that have been a problem. Business owners want to improve Downtown. What casts a shadow over them are the empty storefronts and ill-kept spaces. So DVI started engaging law enforcement to crack down on absentee property owners who had code violations. They also started working to spruce up empty storefronts with more cooperative landlords.
And they found a better use for them. Rather than letting them lie fallow, they began partnering artists with property owners. The artists display works during Art Walk or open studios in these spaces, and the owners get to show off the space, hopefully attracting renters while helping the downtown and art community.
Perception isn’t the only thing DVI focuses on, though perception is a factor of some of their more tangible goals. The bottom line of development is the need for more warm bodies in Downtown for more than just one-time events, both in offices and living spaces. That’s what DVI is always working toward and what Downtown aspires to do. The changes of the past year, and the changes to come are steps in that direction.