Up with Downtown

Alvin Brown doesn’t have a flat-screen TV. Ask him his favorite CD and he laughs loudly and proclaims he’s a radio man. He admits to liking jazz, R&B, and “oldies but goodies is my way of thinking.”
He only really goes to see movies when he’s taking his boys to see something new, an occasion he adores, but rarely gets to do more than once a month. He can’t even tell you the names of the movies he watched because, to him, the thrill of it was not on-screen, but in enjoying his time with his sons. That is surely a rare occasion for a mayor so committed to being visible at every community event he can manage to attend around his busy schedule running Jacksonville.
The last book he read? Back to Work by his old boss, a man named Bill Clinton. In fact, Mayor Brown is hosting a visit from President Clinton this summer. It isn’t just a personal visit to catch up with an old friend; the mayor intends to take full advantage of the former president’s knowledge about balancing a budget and creating a realistic fiscal future, something no president since him has done.
“[President Clinton] is going to focus on the economy and jobs. I have worked for him for years, and he is such a big supporter. I want him to literally focus on economic development and jobs. You know, he runs the Clinton Global Initiative, and I am taking a page from that and getting companies and individuals to commit to education, jobs, Downtown, parks- things that will improve the quality of life here. So I am excited for him to be coming to Jacksonville.”
Anyone who has lived in Jacksonville through the last few mayors knows that every one of them have talked about downtown development, and yet it still seems like a ghost town getting ghostlier. Mayor Brown sees it differently. He sees a foundation that is laid for him to effectively accomplish the goals of those previous administrations.
“The good news is, the city has invested, over the last ten years, over $1.2 million for downtown investment and infrastructure. I’m going to build on that foundation by literally making Downtown a priority so that it can become a vibrant downtown. Downtown speaks to our character and who we are. I want to see more people working downtown, living downtown, visiting downtown. I’m going to build on what the other mayors have done. I’d like to see a new state-of-the-art movie theater, more amenities, more restaurants – brand name restaurants – downtown. I hope we have a new grocery store, a new Winn-Dixie – the new model they have – downtown. I’d love to have space for more colleges and universities. Creating that environment where more people would want to come live, work, play and visit. Make Downtown a destination. We’re right on the water, and we have the opportunity to do it.
“I believe we’ll be able to do it because now that I’ve introduced my reform plan, the first phase passed 16 to 1 by City Council. Secondly, the legislature, both the House and the Senate, passed my reform plan for economic development as it relates to JEDC. Now, the director for economic development reports to the mayor. The governor is signing that plan today, and that’s huge. Having someone to focus on economic development is great.
“I’ve also introduced legislation for the Downtown Investment Authority. We will have a president and CEO to focus on Downtown like a laser, leveraging our our assets, making sure our taxpayers get a return on investment and attracting private developers and investors to invest in Downtown. So there is a lot of energy and momentum right now. EverBank is moving 1,500 people downtown, plus they are going to hire 200 additional people, which is really good for us, plus you have a lot of other companies looking at Downtown. So having someone to focus on Downtown, it’s a priority for the Jacksonville Chamber and City Council. So the business leaders and CEOs of this city are committed to making sure we bring back Downtown. And the other thing is, I brought in Alan Verlander and Artis Gilmore to bring more sporting events and entertainment downtown. I think with all of those combinations, everyone making a commitment, I believe Downtown will be a destination.”

You may wonder why all of these mayors are so infatuated with a downtown that most of Jacksonville never even visits. Mayors do this because for Jacksonville to have an identity at all, it has to exist in the Urban Core. That is what the nation sees when they tune in to Jags games, and it represents what the world thinks of the city.
“I think Downtown speaks to our culture, so really focusing on the arts and entertainment is important. It will give Downtown an identity, particularly for young artists and entrepreneurs. It is also going to have a direct influence on more heads in beds, helping young entrepreneurs and those owning businesses downtown and restaurants, really making it business-friendly for both the customers and the entrepreneurs. Look at Art Walk. We want to build on that, make sure we do more.”
There are few things more refreshing than a mayor who can’t remember the title of the movies he saw this past year because his attention is so strongly focused on his charge to make this city great, and when he has a moment’s respite from that, he spends it not watching movies, but watching his children watch movies. If Alvin Brown can use his years of national urban development experience to craft our downtown into the place that Jacksonville has wanted it to be for at least three mayors now, then he will have accomplished something great and completed the work they all started.