An arts alliance is embroiled in a battle with the Sons of Confederate Veterans for control over a massive brick structure that once served as the Duval County Armory, and Mayor Alvin Brown’s office says the City Council is moving too fast.
For about three years, the armory, which resembles a brick fort, has been empty — the victim of age and flooding from nearby McCoys Creek. The city of Jacksonville’s Parks & Recreation Department was the last to occupy the 98-year-old structure on State and Market streets at the edge of Springfield. The property appears on the city’s list of 390 “lazy assets.”
Despite entreaties from City Council President Bill Gulliford and the mayor’s office, the council’s Finance Committee voted 5-3 on Dec. 3 to award a lease to the SCV.
Commander Calvin Hart, head of the Kirby-Smith Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the group wants to honor the sacrifices of American veterans and restore and save the armory. Its plans beyond that are unclear.
Suggestions from some of the members for a military museum to honor veterans of all U.S. wars are a “misrepresentation,” he said.
“The purpose is to commemorate the veterans and promote patriotism,” said Hart. While not a military veteran himself, Hart has ancestors who fought in both the Revolutionary War and Civil War.
The measure was set to go before the entire 19-member City Council Dec. 10. Gulliford said it’s unclear if it will have enough votes to pass. If it is approved, it will get close scrutiny from the mayor’s office, Communications Director David DeCamp said.
(Check out Ron Word’s blog on FolioWeekly.com on Wednesday, Dec. 11 to find out the results of that meeting.)
“Our position is that it is premature to take any action on the armory until the asset optimization study is complete,” DeCamp said of the study being conducted on properties owned by the city. “As you know, the armory is on that list of sites. That study can help determine the best use of the armory and other sites on the list to review.”
That study, being conducted by the city’s Public Works Department, will not be finished until early in 2014, DeCamp said, adding that the list of “lazy assets” has been trimmed from more than 1,000 parcels to 390.
Meanwhile, art groups have been working the phones and sending emails and videos to individual council members, urging them to award the leases for the structure to a coalition of several nonprofit dance and theater groups.
The problem, Gulliford said, is that they have not submitted any formal legislation before the council, so it has nothing to vote on.
Gulliford said he argued against approving the lease at the Dec. 3 Finance Committee meeting, fearing the city will be stuck again with another aging white elephant.
Several years ago, the council approved a lease with the St. Johns River City Band for Snyder Memorial, an old church building on Hemming Plaza. When the band ceased operations, the city received the building back, but none of the promised repairs or renovations had been made, Gulliford said.
If approved by the council, the mayor’s office reviews the measure and determines if the mayor should sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without a signature, DeCamp said.
Kathryn D. McAvoy, executive director of The Performers Academy, along with officials of The Art League of Jacksonville Inc., The Art Center Cooperative and The Performers Academy, have formed The Founder’s Committee to explore using the armory, which it views as a large-enough space to accommodate dance, performance arts and visual arts and serve as an arts educational facility for students.
The leaders sent two videos to City Council members, touting the possibilities to engage and educate the community. McAvoy said she would like to see a location where all the arts can collaborate; she envisions a local version of The Torpedo Factory, a popular arts facility in Alexandria, Va., which has become a tourist draw.
“The goal of TFC is to create a unified public center for the arts nicknamed ‘The Artery.’ Each organization in TFC creates art-centric offerings to the urban and suburban communities around metropolitan Jacksonville,” McAvoy wrote to Council members.
McAvoy said arts groups approached the mayor’s office about three years ago regarding a joint space for the arts. She wanted to partner with The Florida Theatre, but that never worked out.
An offer of Snyder Memorial was rejected, she said, because it has roof and foundation problems “and it is leaning,” she said.
Hart said to use the armory as an arts facility would be a slap in the face of veterans.
“The armory represents veterans and their sacrifices and the soldiers who never returned,” Hart said. The organization is a patriotic and historical group, he added.
But the group’s Web page (scv-kirby-smith.org), topped with a logo of the Confederate battle flag, states, “The Kirby-Smith’s main purpose is to defend Confederate Heritage and perpetuate the memory of the Southern Confederate soldiers who fought during the War Between the States (1861-1865). The Camp is strictly a patriotic, historical, educational, benevolent, non-sectarian entity.” Membership is open to any male who can show he is a descendant of a Confederate soldier who served honorably.
Hart said he didn’t know how the conflict with the arts group would be resolved.
“Politics is politics,” he said.
Gulliford doesn’t know if either of the groups can come up with the funds needed for the $9 million in repair and renovation work on the armory.
Both the arts group and the Sons of Confederate Veterans claim if they are awarded the lease, they will do the work in stages, starting with renovation and maintenance on the first floor, then the second floor and finally the basement. McAvoy said there are plans in the works for McCoys Creek, which may reduce the constant flooding.
“My concern is that there is no skin in the game. There is no upfront money being tendered,” Gulliford said. “I would like to see some good uses and money committed for renovating and repairing.”
Springfield Preservation and Restoration (SPAR) sent an email to the city giving its support to The Artery.
“Having the building used to enhance culture and the arts, and having the building available fulltime for all citizens of Jacksonville, presents a very favorable case to any potential funding source,” according to an unsigned posting on SPAR’s Facebook page.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Jacksonville came out against leasing the armory to the Confederate group.
“We ask that our public officials not support legislation leasing the space to any group whose interests are highly offensive to many in this city,” said Opio Sokoni, president of the SCLC.
Throughout the years, there have been proposals to utilize the building for a number of different things, including a homeless day care center. In 2006, neighbors in the Springfield area fought efforts to establish an adult drug rehabilitation center in the space, which had previously been a Job Corps site and a Jewish community center.
DeCamp said the armory was viewed as a possible site for the relocation of the Supervisor of Elections office.
The armory, which was built for $150,000 in 1915 and 1916, once contained the state’s largest drill hall, which doubled as an auditorium, kitchen, mess hall, rifle range, band and billiards room. The basement had a swimming pool and a bowling alley.
During the Civil War and Spanish-American War, troops camped on the grounds, Hart said.
The building also served as a community center, hosting several neighborhood gatherings and concerts.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech there in 1936, and Duke Ellington and his band performed there in the 1950s. Other performers using the venue included Ray Charles, Canned Heat, Rush and Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels. Four months before she died of a drug overdose in 1970, Janis Joplin performed in the building.
If the City Council turns down the lease with the veterans group and waits for the study to be completed, the city could try to find out who else might be interested in it, DeCamp said. Depending on the report, the city may put out a call for applications.