Bang for the Bucks

The owners of downtown Jacksonville hotels, bars and restaurants are probably the ones saying “ooh” and “aah,” while the city explodes some $20,000 in fireworks from a barge in the St. Johns River.

Most of the activity for the New Year celebration centers around the Gator Bowl game and the fans from Northwestern University and Mississippi State, who fill up hotel rooms, frequent restaurants and imbibe at local watering holes.

Gator Bowl fans and tourists are expected to bring in an estimated $12.74 million in direct expenditures and $21.86 million in total economic impact to the area, according to Visit Jacksonville, which receives its figures from the Gator Bowl Association.

Rick Catlett, Gator Bowl Association executive director, told First Coast News that the economic impact from the Gator Bowl week would make it a Top 20-ranked local company.

The tourist organization says as many as 15,000 people are expected to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks show and about 60 percent of them will be town for the traditional Jan. 1 game.

Katie Kurycki, Visit Jacksonville’s director of marketing and product development, said the eight major downtown hotels and others in the area will sell an estimated 25,000 rooms each night before and after the big game, compared with 23,900 last year and 27,161 in 2010, when Florida State and West Virginia played.

The Hyatt Regency Riverfront, situated on the river, and other downtown hotels are sold out or nearly sold out already.

At midnight, 12 hours before the game, fireworks will light the night sky in downtown Jacksonville above the St. Johns River.

“Fireworks in Jacksonville are very unique and show off our river so well. The importance of New Year’s Eve fireworks is that we can show these out-of-town visitors a unique Jacksonville experience and hopefully we can encourage return visitation,” Kurycki said.

“We want visitors to see all there is to see and do in Jacksonville by ringing in the New Year with a spectacular show over the St. Johns River,” Kurycki said. “We are showing off some of our best attributes. We want to show visitors that we roll out the red carpet for them here in Jacksonville, and we would love to have them plan another trip to come back and vacation in our city.”

Kurycki said the Gator Bowl also advertises for local residents to make the football classic a holiday tradition. Ads are shown frequently on local television channels, showing the excitement of a young boy receiving Gator Bowl tickets for Christmas.

“I do know that public-private sponsorship has funded the fireworks cost for last year and this year. Support from the Tourist Development Council, North Florida Hotel & Lodging Association, One Spark, The Jacksonville Landing, Visit Jacksonville and the Gator Bowl made the fireworks this year possible,” Kurycki said.

Tonisha Landry-Gaines, manager of special events for the city of Jacksonville, said that because of tight city finances, the New Year’s Eve fireworks show had not been budgeted, but she expects the city to kick in about $5,000 as part of the total $20,000.

“It will be an abbreviated fireworks show — a 5 to 10 minute show. That’s what it always has been,” Kurycki said, noting that additional barges, used for big occasions, such as July Fourth, add as much as $5,000 more just for barge rental, plus the cost of the fireworks, which can vary, depending on the supplier and what kind of show the city wants.

Instead of two barges of fireworks in the St. Johns River downtown for such things as the Light Parade, there will be only one barge, which is typical for the New Year’s Eve fireworks display, she said.

The city did not kick in any money for the Nov. 24 fireworks in the Light Parade, which cost about $51,000.

The Gator Bowl and associated events have had a positive impact on the area’s economy, bringing in an estimated $20.47 million in 2011 and $23.35 million in 2010, according to Visit Jacksonville.

The teams playing in the big game, where their college is located, and their fan bases make a big difference, Kurycki said.

For example, Florida was pitted against Ohio State last year. Instead of spending nights in local hotels, many Florida fans just drove in town for the game and then went home, taking their lodging and dining dollars with them.

Rick Mullaney — founding director of the Jacksonville University Policy Center, former mayoral candidate and former general counsel and chief of staff for then-Mayor John Delaney — sees value in the fireworks show.

“When the people come down from Chicago [Northwestern], we want them come to Jacksonville and have a beautiful experience,” Mullaney said.

Alan Bliss, a visiting professor of history at University of North Florida, thinks events that draw people to the downtown area, even for fireworks, are beneficial.

“Anything that attracts positive attention to the central business district is a good thing,” Bliss said.

Bliss, who also teaches urban history and incorporates Jacksonville into his course, has researched and lectured on the city’s history.

“Fireworks — bring them on,” he said.

Mayor Alvin Brown has made revitalizing Downtown one of his priorities and has pushed for activities in the Sports Complex.

“Make no mistake about it — unlocking the full potential of Downtown Jacksonville must be a common cause,” Brown said at a news conference on Aug. 27, when he signed a bill creating the Downtown Investment Authority.