The Perpetual Cusp

Don’t look now, but Downtown may well be on the cusp of something special. Yeah, we know, Jacksonville has been on that cusp of whatever for decades. (As former Mayor Tommy Hazouri quipped to us last week, “The cusp is getting rusty.”) But we really mean it this time. Maybe. If everything goes to plan.

The good news is, there actually is a plan, and it’s actually pretty solid.

Only the people behind it don’t like that word, “plan.” Downtown Jacksonville has seen too many plans from too many people, one every few years, it seems, and they all seem to peter out. “This is real. This is not another plan. This will not fail. We are moving for real,” says Lara Diettrich, a former city planner turned planning consultant.

That plan, or strategy, or whatever you want to call it, is encapsulated in two Downtown Investment Authority draft documents — the Community Redevelopment Plan and the Business Investment and Development Plan (BID) — that circulated among Downtown movers and shakers last week ahead of this week’s World Class Jax meeting, after which the plan will be opened for public comment and then sent to the City Council for approval.

The legislative process could begin as early as next month.

Before we dive in, some background: In the early ’80s, Downtown had two community redevelopment areas, or CRAs, two on the Northbank (which were later consolidated) and one on the Southbank. These CRAs are funded by what’s called tax incremental financing (TIF) — in effect, promoting redevelopment by leveraging the increased future property tax revenues that will come from the redevelopment. (Think of it like using a magnifying glass to harness the sun’s energy and spark a fire.) These CRAs and their affiliated TIF trust funds have spurred some projects over the years, but there’s never been a sort of grand unified vision for Downtown. Meanwhile, mayors and their Downtown revitalization plans came and went, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, until just recently Downtown just wasn’t that high a priority.

But that’s changed. In 2012, the City Council created the DIA, one central agency to coordinate and streamline the various Downtown initiatives. And last year, the DIA recruited Aundra Wallace from the Detroit Land Bank Authority to be its first CEO — essentially, the city’s Downtown guru, an overlord at least somewhat removed from the whims of politicians. Wallace’s mission is to turn the eons of talk into palpable, tangible action, stuff we can see, and sooner rather than later.

Which brings us to those two documents. The Community Redevelopment Plan is long and technical, and basically consolidates all of the existing schemes associated with the CRAs and TIF trust funds. The more exciting document is the BID, which lays out a specific strategy with specific timeframes for Downtown redevelopment.

Long story short: The DIA wants to create incentives and tax breaks to lure developers and businesses and homeowners into the urban core. (This is hardly a novel idea. The real question is, why is Jacksonville so far behind so many other places?) This includes grants to property or business owners who want to renovate or build Downtown retail space, down payment assistance for employees of Downtown businesses who relocate to the urban core, and property tax abatements for commercial and office developments.

There are other elements, too — an admixture of the intriguing and the obvious: better lighting, more public art, events at Hemming Plaza, two-way streets, homeless assistance, formally branding The Elbow as The Elbow (and not “E-Town,” which we can all agree is hideous), redeveloping The Landing, removing the old Courthouse and City Annex buildings, figuring out what the hell to do with The Shipyards, etc. The bigger pieces are conceptual, planned for early next decade; the smaller ones would begin almost immediately.

“There’s so much that’s about to happen,” says Jen Jones, executive director of Jacksonville Unity Plaza and a DIA volunteer, and we really, really want to believe her.

Gifts, etc.
In what is surely not any sort of quid pro quo — more like a very generous thank-you card — last week Jaguars owner Shad Khan became the largest single donor ($50,000!) to Mayor Alvin Brown’s re-election campaign, a year after Brown pushed through a deal for taxpayer-funded ($43 million!) ginormous scoreboards at EverBank Field, which is assuredly much more important to the city’s well-being than, say, libraries or whatever.

We don’t have anything against Khan (and we love the ’stache, which is boss). He’s doing what rich people do — using his wealth to influence elections.

It’s not just Khan, after all: Brown’s Taking Jacksonville to the Next Level committee has also taken in $30,000 from attorney (and former state rep) Steve Pajcic, $25,000 from his law firm, Pajcic & Pajcic, and another $25,000 from attorney Wayne Hogan — including Khan’s donation, that’s more than a third of Brown’s $310,000 war chest (as of February) from just a few people.

Nor do we fault Brown. His opponents will surely have their own mega donors, and you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, not if you want to survive.

What we object to is a system in which candidates can use political committees to circumvent donation limits and accept unlimited amounts of dough from wealthy people, who may or may not want something in return. Like, you know, a new scoreboard.