An average of more than 27,500 vehicles zoom past a point two miles south of the Florida-Georgia border on Interstate 95 in each direction. That’s more than 55,000 vehicles every day, according to 201l North Florida Transportation Planning Organization figures.
If just 5 percent of the vehicles traveling southbound visited Downtown Jacksonville, that would be about 1,375 vehicles. If each car had an average 2.3 passengers, more than 3,100 people a day would visit our city — more than one million per year. For comparison’s sake, St. Augustine has six million visitors per year.
What type of attraction could convince that many people to leave I-95 and go Downtown? Converting the destroyer USS Charles F. Adams into a floating museum would provide this kind of a draw.
After a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting, John E. O’Neil, executive director of Jacksonville Historic Naval Ship Association (JHNSA), spoke with a couple of us about plans for the ship. We had a perfect view of the planned docking location.
The Shipyards property has a dock that sits just west of where Hogan’s Creek enters the St. Johns River. This is the spot JHNSA would like to use for docking the floating museum. It would need about six acres of land to build the land-based portions of the museum, repair the existing bulkhead and provide parking.
The initial plan of building a pier adjacent to the Acosta Bridge proved impractical due to the currents and navigation issues created by permanently docking such a large ship. With these issues came an unexpected advantage: Instead of a $6.1 million pier, the JHNSA would need to spend only $400,000 on bulkhead repairs, dolphins (concrete moorings) and dredging the silt buildup to a depth of 12 feet. Would asking the city of Jacksonville to provide this land be asking too much?
The Shipyards property is 44 acres that sits on the St. Johns River. The west side is bound by Berkman Plaza, the north side by Bay Street and the east side by Metropolitan Park. The city has been trying to find a developer for the property for 21 years. The idea is to develop $1 billion worth of office, residential, retail and hotel space. This type of development would add more than $10 million to the Northbank Tax Increment Financing District (TIF). Could a potential development spare a portion of this land?
Back in 2009, LandMar was one of the many potential developers who went bankrupt. During LandMar’s planning process, part of the agreement was that 30 percent of the land would be developed as public lands with access for all the people. This was, of course, necessary as the master plan includes a Riverwalk. There should still be a Riverwalk through the property and public access points. If 13 acres are designated as public access, there’s no reason six of those acres cannot be deeded to and used by JHNSA.
There are some members of the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) who believe that six acres of developable land should not be deeded to a nonprofit. Other members feel it’s a great concept. When the time comes to determine the fate of the Shipyards, they should decide in favor of the JHNSA. The use of the six acres will divide the property; however, it must be remembered that narrower access points from Bay Street to the Riverwalk will also divide the property. A 30 percent dedication to public use will still leave more than 30 acres for development.
Since the removal of the dry docks in 1992, the Shipyards have had several would-be developers. All of these suitors left the city of Jacksonville at the altar. If there’s a group ready to provide a floating naval museum, this concept should be embraced.
What is needed from the public sector is for the city of Jacksonville to deed the necessary land to JHNSA. In addition, though not requested by the organization, it would be good if the DIA would use part of the one-time funding of $9 million to issue a grant of $400,000 needed to berth the ship permanently. This offers a large return on funds for the initial investment. To reduce any risk to the city, the gift could require that the land revert to the city if the museum project cannot be completed or if it fails.
What is to be done about the remaining $7 million needed to prepare the wharf (if the DIA can’t do it), refurbish the ship, tow it to Jacksonville and turn it into museum? Perhaps the best way to raise funds would be a public appeal through all of the media. People could make donations. If 100,000 households made a one-time donation of $70, then the full capital needed is raised. This requires a gift from less than one-fifth of the households in metropolitan Jacksonville.
According to the JHNSA business plan, the museum will be self-supporting after the first year. The public would not need to provide any more funding. Museum attendance is estimated to be 165,000 per year based on attendance at the Museum of Science & History (MOSH). However, the ship museum would be advertised on the Interstate (by billboard),and in travel guides and military publications. With more than 20 million people going through Jacksonville and crossing the Georgia border each way, the annual number of visitors could more likely approach one million.
What would just 165,000 visitors do for the economy in Jacksonville? They’d spend $16.5 million on food and entertainment and generate more than $200,000 in combined local sales tax and room tax. Just this low estimate of attendance on the USS Adams would be an economic boon for the city of Jacksonville. It’s quite likely the number of visitors and impact would be six times greater.
This plan would take land that has sat vacant for the past 21 years and put it to the best use possible. There’s no guarantee that a developer will come in and build on the Shipyards property. The city currently has the undeveloped Jacksonville Electric Authority land on the Southbank, the unfinished Berkman Plaza, several parking lots along the riverfront on parts of Riverside Avenue and the old City Hall and Courthouse as examples of undeveloped land. That’s not counting vacant land in Downtown areas away from the river.
Shad Khan recently expressed interest in developing the Shipyards, but he set no timetable.
Unless a developer wants to use the six acres now and can document financial ability to build on that specific parcel, the city should allow the JHNSA to develop the property for use as a museum.
City Council members Bill Bishop, Bill Gulliford, John Crescimbeni, Don Redman, Kimberly Daniels and Stephen Joost have sponsored a bill to allow the Adams to be moored at the Shipyards. These council members should be commended.
The financial plan shows the museum will be an asset to Jacksonville. The budget allows for proper maintenance, and it appears the plans include using a zinc treatment to preserve the hull.
If, for some reason, the museum is unable to make it financially, the land would revert to the city, and JHNSA has an agreement for the ship to be towed away at no cost by a salvage company. The only loss to taxpayers would be if the DIA helps with the funding and that money is lost.
The museum will not be a possibility without help from the community. The JHNSA currently has about $207,000 on hand. To complete this project, it is necessary to raise $6.5 million. Please help make this museum a reality for Downtown Jacksonville.
Fouraker has been a paralegal with a law firm specializing in municipal finance. He has worked in banking for the last 20 years.