HOW TO REVITALIZE NORTHWEST JACKSONVILLE

If you drive along Myrtle Avenue in Northwest Jacksonville, it doesn’t take long to see the economic neglect of the businesses that still exist there — businesses that were once thriving. In its heyday, the neighborhood was a bustling source of economic, residential and cultural activity. Generations of families were proud to live, work and play in Northwest Jacksonville in close-knit neighborhoods filled with laughter and life.

Those days have long gone, but they have not been forgotten. Many of our city’s champions believe there is an opportunity to provide a pathway to the future for this struggling area. Northwest Jacksonville is not forgotten by me and some city leaders.

Many promises were made to Northwest Jacksonville from before consolidation up to and including right before the last election that have never been fulfilled. These include neighborhood enhancements, drainage and infrastructure improvements, as well as an emphasis on economic development. It is quite clear that Jacksonville is currently a divided city, with both prosperous and long-neglected areas. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “A house divided upon itself cannot stand.” Jacksonville cannot truly prosper as a city until all parts of our city have an equal opportunity to prosper.

In order for Northwest Jacksonville’s residential neighborhoods and surrounding businesses to not just survive, but to thrive, three key drivers must be included in a vision for success. This is my vision:

  • Neighborhood Revitalization and Development
  • Family, Education, Job Creation
  • Business Investment Opportunities

Neighborhood Revitalization and Development

Jacksonville has several examples of neighborhoods once on the decline that transformed themselves back into highly desirable areas. Riverside/Avondale and San Marco have succeeded. Springfield and Murray Hill are well underway. All of these neighborhoods were suffering from blight, increases in conversions of single-family houses into low-end rental property, degradation of commercial areas, and intrusion of commercial uses into residential areas. Each of these areas was successful in correcting these problems and reversing their decline. They accomplished this through active community involvement and neighborhood associations. The combined effort of residents and businesses used city government to correct problems and encourage quality redevelopment. Many of the neighborhoods in Northwest Jacksonville do not have active neighborhood associations, but they all have residents who take pride in their neighborhoods and desperately want to see neighborhood improvement. The city’s Housing and Community Development Division has the resources and expertise to assist communities in establishing neighborhood associations, recruit active participants, and educate people on how the city government functions. This way people learn how to advocate for positive changes or oppose actions that will be detrimental, who to contact to report property safety code violations, and how to follow up to make sure issues are addressed.

There are many neighborhood commercial areas throughout Northwest Jacksonville that have historically provided for many of the day-to-day needs of the surrounding communities. As the surrounding communities have declined, so have these retail corridors. Commercial revitalization is an integral part of any neighborhood revitalization effort. One only has to go to King Street, St. Johns Avenue and San Marco Square to see the transformative results of such efforts. In conjunction with establishing active neighborhood associations, a storefront improvement program similar to that proposed for Downtown by the Downtown Investment Authority consisting of low-interest loans and grants funded by the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund can be a very effective tool for putting a new face on these older commercial areas. This can be a relatively inexpensive program that will pay great dividends through increased business activity.

There is no substitute for taking pride in and having ownership of your neighborhoods.

Family, Education, Job Creation

From the youth to the out-of-work father of four to the single mother, creating educational opportunities close to home that will allow families to create a pathway to success is one of the most important strategies.

For many years our education system has focused on college as the end game. This educational tactic branded those without degrees as failures. This does a grave disservice to a multitude of students that do not thrive in an academic environment and robs young people of the knowledge about high-paying career opportunities in crafts and trades, resulting in a shortage of people in many manufacturing, technical and construction jobs. Unfortunately most people don’t know that many of these jobs actually have salary structures on par or higher than many “professional” career paths. Northwest Jacksonville is home to a number of underperforming or failing schools that do not adequately prepare young people for life after high school.

Non-college post-secondary education is essentially left to private sector technical and trade schools, industry or trade union-sponsored apprenticeship programs, and to some extent Florida State College at Jacksonville’s vocational programs. With the exception of FSCJ’s Downtown campus, none of the other options is located close to Northwest Jacksonville, making attendance difficult for students without cars. Also, the cost of tuition can be prohibitively expensive, and without adequate career counseling, prospective students are not prepared to work through possible financial assistance options.

Community-based job training programs can be created in partnership with the Housing and Community Development Division, FSCJ, Duval County Public Schools and business providers, and funded through the NWJEDF. Prospective students can, through proper counseling, take advantage of a multitude of financial aid opportunities. Many of these programs can be located in satellite facilities in or near neighborhoods. Location options include public schools (nights and weekends) and vacant commercial properties/storefronts. Benefits include close proximity and easy access for students, vacant properties that would have activity and income, and education partners that would have access to more students.

Business Investment Opportunities

While it is not the job of the city to guarantee the success of private businesses, the city can and should take measures within its ability to foster and encourage prosperous local business in all of its areas. This was the intent of former Mayor Jake Godbold’s creation of the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund. Jobs provided by a prosperous local business community provide opportunities for all our citizens to realize a better quality of life, as well as resources for neighborhood improvement and increased local tax revenue to better provide needed city services.

There are several ways this can be accomplished. Through the Office of Economic Development and the Department of Public Works, we can institute a program in which local businesses that have not done business with the city before are taught how to do business with the city. This can be modeled after a very successful program operated by the federal government in which businesses are trained in the federal procurement process. Government procurement can be cumbersome and time consuming for those without such experience. We should also standardize the procurement process of the city and the five independent authorities. There is no reason for the city, JEA, JPA, JAA and JTA to each have a separate way to do what amounts to essentially the same function. This will encourage greater participation from the business community, potentially resulting in better pricing and the more effective use of tax dollars.

Other programs to support young, small startup businesses include eliminating the bonding requirement for projects under $200,000 like the state of Florida does. Small, new contractors have a difficult time obtaining bonding primarily because they don’t have a track record. Such a program provides a good opportunity for young contractors to establish themselves and represents a very small financial risk to the city as well as a savings to the taxpayers, as bonds are not free.

Conclusion

Northwest Jacksonville is not the only area that suffers from years of neglect, but it is certainly the largest and has suffered the longest. In fact, many wonder if the area would have been better off if consolidation had never occurred. The residents would probably say yes. I believe that consolidation has generally been good for our city, but now is the time to use the resources of our consolidated government to solve the longstanding problems that are keeping us from becoming one city for everyone. This is my outline for the revitalization of the Northwest. Success will require competent, effective leadership, which has been sorely lacking, together with a vision developed from within the community that expresses the goals and desires of area residents and businesses. My plan will transform a neglected community. It has been done before, and it must be done now. We can revitalize, transform and improve the quality of life in Northwest Jacksonville. This will finally move us to become a city for everyone.

While it is not the job of the city to guarantee the success of private businesses, the city can and should take measures within its ability to foster and encourage prosperous local business in all of its areas.

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