Do You Identify with Downtown?

The people have spoken. At least 14,000 of them, anyway. And 62.6 percent of those are not satisfied with downtown Jacksonville.

This is according to the Jacksonville Community Council Inc.’s JAX2025 survey that asked people to rate many issues facing the city.

In similar surveys nationwide, the top issues are usually education, public safety and the environment. In this local survey, 28.1 percent of the adult responses said they were not at all satisfied with the vibrancy of downtown (plus another 34.5 who aren’t very satisfied). It’s a big drop down to the next items with the most “not at all satisfied” responses, such as the ability to influence local government (17 percent), the ease of transportation and moving around (16.7 percent) and the quality of public education (15.7 percent).

It surprised JCCI CEO Ben Warner: “It’s a huge, major, community-wide issue.”

As proof, Warner pointed out that although the respondents skewed a little higher on education and income than Jacksonville’s averages, people of all education levels noted downtown was a big issue, including 12 percent of those with a high school diploma.

The first results of the survey were presented Jan. 19 at the Prime Osborn Convention Center, where about 1,000 people gathered at tables of 10 to discuss and prioritize the issues raised. Each table held discussions that were shared with the entire group. Results of that meeting will be posted on this week.

Downtown came up again and again.It could be that downtown has been in the news a lot lately — and over many years with numerous plans for its revitalization. Mayor Alvin Brown pushed through the creation of the Downtown Investment Authority to help shepherd downtown ideas into reality. Now, they have to pick an executive director and get moving. City Councilmember Don Redman has led an effort to remove tables and benches from Hemming Plaza to shoo away “undesirables.” The historic Bostwick building can’t seem to find a compromise that will save and restore it. A few high-profile crimes have taken place at The Jacksonville Landing in a ZIP code that is otherwise one of the city’s safest.

A lot of residents attend the First Wednesday Art Walk downtown, but they don’t return to the area until the following month’s festival, citing the fear and discomfort created by panhandlers and the homeless. But there are also new bars, restaurants, businesses and events popping up, in addition to the long-standing favorites.

Many people in Jacksonville and surrounding communities don’t see their connection to downtown. No doubt they are among the 19.1 percent who were neutral on the topic in the survey. But if you look at almost any successful big city, — the suburbs proudly identify themselves as part of that city and are drawn to it through arts, sports, shopping and community events. This is what downtown Jacksonville could be: the hub around which a greater metropolitan area revolves.

So many of the other issues measured in the survey are connected to creating a strong core:

Transportation and infrastructure: Sprawl creates traffic and the need to spend resources on more and more roads. Concentrating more people in a higher-density area creates a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly city.

Good-paying jobs and quality public education: Companies that pay well look for cities with a good quality of life that will attract high-quality, well-educated employees.

Environment, parks and open spaces: Downtown is defined by its greatest asset, the St. Johns River. The health of that river and public access to it will help drive downtown’s success.

Strong, stable neighborhoods and the sense of community: Downtown should be a city’s strongest neighborhood, reflecting the character and personality of the entire metro area. A vital downtown regularly draws people from the suburbs to work, shop, eat and celebrate, creating a greater sense of shared community.

Housing: More people living downtown create an environment for retail stores and restaurants to thrive. It gives downtown businesses a built-in workforce and helps ease traffic congestion. Now, the city needs to help spark development of the many empty historic buildings into apartments and condos.

Public safety: Some say they don’t feel safe downtown. More streetlights, more activity and more people counteract that. There’s not an overabundance of panhandlers and homeless people in the area; there’s just so little activity on a regular basis that they tend to stick out.

JCCI has worked with several cities on visioning projects, including San Antonio a few years ago ( Now, that city is making a name for itself. It heads up the Milken Institute’s 2011 Best Performing Cities index, has the second-largest bike-share program, was named a brain-gain city (sixth in the nation for in-migration of college-educated new residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher), lowered teen pregnancy by 10 percent, went from being one of the fattest cities to one of the fittest, created “cafécollege” to help kids go to college and voted last November to add a quarter-cent sales tax to fund early childhood education.

“They identified what they wanted to become and aligned public policy and other goals to make it happen,” Warner said. “That’s within two years of announcing the plan. Even better things are on the horizon.”

The JAX2025 results give us the opportunity to wrestle with our goals.

“Who are we, and who do we want to become?” Warner said. “We haven’t seen that in any of the other communities, this conflicted community identity.”

Downtown is the key to solving Jacksonville’s identity crisis.

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