The State 0f Downtown

by KATIE GILE
Downtown Jacksonville’s streets and paths, made nearly impassable by thousands of One Spark visitors who enjoyed the food, tunes and fun of the festival, are again nearly desolate. The throbbing pain of a Spark-over seems inevitable. But something is not as it was before. As enough residual energy to rival the depths of the St. John’s River bubbles just below the surface of the streets and sidewalks, Jacksonville’s entire image is slowly and subtly changing.
One Spark passersby may have noticed the presence of construction cranes proudly gracing the skyline, symbolic of changes in the works for Downtown Jacksonville. Currently, there are plans in motion to revive Downtown by making the most of its existing assets and by building a few new ones. Since the beginning of the year, developers have purchased five of the 25 vacant buildings downtown for use as residences and businesses, says Katherine Hardwick, Director of Marketing for Downtown Vision, Inc.
Hardwick says she expects to see more sales and renovations as the year progresses, with interest in Downtown increasing each day. “Everything’s starting to come together, and we’re at that tipping point where we’re hopefully going to see things happening much more quickly than they have in the past few years,” Hardwick said. As part of the emphasis on connectivity and for safety’s sake, the Southbank Riverwalk is expected be under construction by summer, and various other projects will begin shortly thereafter.
More immediately, adaptive re-use is in effect for the Jacksonville Shipyards, which will host party guests of the Tournament Players Championship on May 3. And following the success of One Spark on Jacksonville’s downtown streets, the Jazz Fest will again fill every corner with great music, even offering a “Jazz Fest after Dark” until 2 am in the venues with decent sound systems, says Tony Allegretti, Director of Downtown Engagement at Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Downtown cultivation has been in the works for years, although it’s taken the collective energy of a handful of organizations and offices, and the end of the recession, to set the gears in motion. “Downtown improvements have always been a part of Mayor Brown’s platform,” says Ted Carter, Economic Development Officer for the Mayor’s Office. “The general consensus is that Jacksonville needs to have a vibrant, energetic downtown in order to progress as a city.”
IBM Smarter Cities created a plan for Jacksonville in August 2012, and shortly thereafter, JAX2025, a community-owned initiative facilitated by JCCI or Jacksonville Community Council, Inc., began collecting information through surveys to address community concerns. The results of both plans specifically address Downtown Jacksonville as an area for improvement.
In fact, with over 14,000 survey responses from 183 zip codes in the region for JAX2025, Downtown improvement was the highest concern by a significant margin, says JCCI CEO Ben Warner. “Downtown isn’t just important to people who live downtown, either. No one zip code had more than about six percent of the response,” Warner says. “It mirrored the population spread, and reflected the age, race and gender demographics of the city. It was as diverse a group as you could find.”
Mayor Brown’s office then took that information and restructured bonds for Downtown and city debt, to invest $9 million in the revitalization of Jacksonville, Warner says. The importance of Downtown Jacksonville extends beyond even the names and numbers, to a larger philosophy. He says, “If Downtown is our urban heart, how does that energy flow through the whole body? If it’s supposed to be pumping the life blood through the city, where are the blocked arteries?”
The JAX2025 survey results, or the “They Should” level, are just the beginning of that answer. “You must be present to win,” Allegretti says. “We all have great ideas and good suggestions, and great things will happen from those. But to experience and to be all about it gives you incredible satisfaction.”
That’s where Level 2: “You Can” and Level 3: “I Will” come into play. Level 2 is already happening, as the creative and collaborative spirit permeates the city with new ideas for contribution. Level 3 began at JAX2025’s April 27 meeting, as “Visioneers” filled out pledge cards promising one way they will personally contribute to Jacksonville’s goals for itself, Warner says.
The implementation phase begins at the JAX2025 release event May 18 and continues through the year 2025. “A community only gets better when people throughout the community take responsibility for making it happen,” Warner says. “When you’re playing this game that’s moving the city forward, there’s nobody sitting on the bench. There’s no one in the bleachers. We’re all suited up, and we’re all on the field.”
Further down the line, there are a great many hopes for Jacksonville. From Skyway extensions to new available retailers and the dream of a soccer stadium, there are high hopes for the urban heart. “Whether it’s on paper or not, people are dreaming about it,” Hardwick says. “We want to see it happen.”
Others simply hope for a city that understands itself, with an identity by which other cities will know it. “When I think about it, I think that improving Downtown is less about one thing, one attraction. We have the ‘one things,’” Warner says. “What we don’t have is the connection. What we don’t have is a vibe, a feeling of what our city’s soul is. And I think we’re going to find that.”
All of the efforts on paper and in dreams are pushing for the same overall goal: a brighter, thrilling, successful, culturally-rich city. The journey from the current state of Downtown to the end of the rainbow begins with getting involved. The available opportunities are nearly boundless and increasing each day, Allegretti says. “Downtown advocacy is at an all-time high. Whether you want to go to public meetings, or you want to be involved in the business side, you can have a lot of impact in this city.”
Though Downtown Jacksonville seems a little gloomier absent of the tents, food trucks, fantastic entertainment and a huge yellow duck, One Spark’s mark remains. “If there’s one thing that One Spark has showed us, it’s that Jacksonville is capable of anything,” Allegretti says. But while the massive efforts and extensive planning of public events may expedite change, it’s not the only way to pitch in. “You’re gonna have people who will get involved downtown at the One Spark level, but you don’t have to know how to put on a festival to make a difference,” Hardwick says. “It’s as simple as ‘Come Downtown.’”
Telling friends about it is another great step in the process. “We always say word-of-mouth is the best advertising,’” Hardwick says. However the people of Jacksonville decide to participate, there’s one thing that all agree needs to happen for the urban heart to pump with a passion, and it’s that they simply participate. “Find your passion,” Warner says. “Get involved somewhere; because this city needs you, and you need this city.”

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