SHOULD JAX BEACH’S DOWNTOWN BE ‘FAMILY-FRIENDLY’?

Located in a beachy, soft-green residential building in Jacksonville Beach, Greg Saig’s 
 office is just steps from the Atlantic Ocean. 
The view is partially obstructed by the backside 
of an old rundown bar, but on sunny, summer days, Saig can see the bustle of the Jax Beach Pier as beachgoers on bicycles and in cars navigate the intersection of First Street and Fifth Avenue North. Today, though, with summer over and the sun hiding behind a thick marine layer, Saig’s view is less appealing.

A few years ago, Saig and his brother used the name of an established local surf and lifestyle brand, Salt Life, to found a restaurant concept called Salt Life Food Shack. Their success caught the eye of the people behind the Surfer magazine-themed bar in Hawaii. Tasked with expanding that concept to the continental U.S., Saig envisioned his hometown as an ideal location.

“They wanted to establish a presence on the East Coast,” Saig says. “Me being rooted here, that swayed me. It’s my community, of course, but logistically it makes good sense, so I convinced [Surfer] of the business elements behind it, and they liked it.”

Greg, who recently turned 50, sports a tan and speaks with the lazy L’s and R’s of a beach boy. Strewn across his desk are the concept drawings for Surfer: the Bar. The idea was for Surfer to replace Mango’s Beach Bar & Grille on 
Fifth Avenue North and First Street. Slated to be 
the only Surfer magazine-sponsored bar in the 
continental U.S., the proposal was especially popular among the ever-growing surf community.

In the renderings, the ocean-blue and slate-gray siding of the building create clean lines, and atop the two-story structure stand virtual patrons no doubt enjoying their virtual view of the virtual Atlantic. The name, Surfer: the Bar — set in the same font the iconic magazine has carried for more than 50 years — sits clearly visible in sharp black letters on the building’s façade.

“Look at this shrine to surf culture!” Saig says, pointing to the renderings. “You’re a 12-year-old surf dude going to the pier, are you going to want to grab a Coke or a taco here? With your dad after a surf? I think so.”

Saig says Surfer: the Bar had the potential to reinvigorate the area. Dave Smith, who has owned the property just across Fifth Avenue from Mango’s since 1989, agrees. He says that after word got out about the Surfer proposal, he saw an increase in interest from prospective developers.

“My negotiating position definitely got a lot better,” Smith says.

In July, Saig and his investors presented their plan for a mixed-use property — including Surfer: the Bar, a food truck and retail space, which would be leased out to a third party — to the Jacksonville Beach City Council. Before that, the Jacksonville Beach Redevelopment Agency — whose members are appointed by the City Council — and the City Planning Commission had already signed off.

But the City Council didn’t go along. In September, on a 3-2 vote (with council member Keith Doherty, who owns the nearby Lynch’s Irish Pub, abstaining), the council voted it down. What Saig envisioned didn’t mesh with what some Jax Beach leaders thought their downtown should look like.

Council member Chris Hoffman, who voted in favor of the project, says she was blown away by her colleagues’ opposition. “We had a chance to get rid of this eyesore [Mango’s] and replace it with something that has invested a lot of capital.”

After months of planning and lots of money spent, Surfer: the Bar was dead. But the questions the council’s decision raises linger on. Chief among them: If this proposal — one that promised to upgrade prime real estate in downtown Jacksonville Beach with a well-established brand — doesn’t fit with the City Council’s vision, what does that say about the future of the city’s central business district?

The findings of fact provided by the City Council say the proposal was denied due to the council’s preference for a “mixed-use alternative that could lead to a family-friendly, desirable environment.” The council’s findings also suggested that the new space constituted “a significant increase of the intensity of use” that, according to public testimony, would lead to more “late-night shouting, urinating, trash and other secondary affects related to intense alcoholic beverage consumption.”

Intense alcoholic beverage consumption has been an issue in the city’s central business district (CBD) since as far back as 1997, when then-police chief Bruce Thomason enforced a no-tolerance policy for infractions such as drinking alcohol on the boardwalk, surfing near the pier or urinating in public. (Recently retired, and last week elected to the City Council, Thomason — then a candidate — agreed to offer his perspective to Folio Weekly, then reconsidered, saying he had “nothing of value to add to the discussion.”)

Jacksonville Beach’s CBD — a rectangle covering the area from Sixth Avenue North at First Street to Third Avenue South at Fourth Street — has been dealing with a perception problem for years now. Few locals frequent the touristy shops, and many are wary of the struggling restaurants. The biggest influx of business to the CBD occurs between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, when legions of 18-to-25-year-olds descend upon The Ritz and the Brix to hear cover bands blast hits of the last two decades while getting hella-wasted — hence, the council’s concerns about drinking.

In 2007, the city of Jacksonville Beach published its Downtown Vision Plan. The plan states that the CBD was, from that point forward, “positioning itself for investment.” The plan outlined five guiding principles for the redevelopment of CBD, all broadly defined: “Mix It Up,” “Be Family Friendly,” and so on.

Despite carrying out recommendations from the vision plan, like traffic pattern improvements and public park upgrades, the CBD has largely failed to attract new and successful businesses.

Council member Hoffman says the city has done a good job of improving the conditions for investment, but thinks the council now needs to get out of the way.

“We can incentivize the things we want,” Hoffman says, “but we can’t penalize the things we don’t want.” She’s worried about the future for entrepreneurs in the CBD. “[Surfer: the Bar’s investors] worked closely with the city planners to get this thing done, and we just put roadblocks in their way.”

She adds, “I was uncomfortable with the 
way some in council throw around the term ‘family-friendly.'”

Indeed, Mayor Charlie Latham and the City Council have made “family-friendly” something of a rallying cry. Over the last year, the city brought in a number of consultants to talk about creating a more hospitable downtown, and the mayor has said he wants initiatives to clean up what he sees as the CBD’s “party atmosphere.” To that end, years ago the city stopped issuing new liquor licenses in the CBD (which only made the existing licenses more valuable). These initiatives echo the Downtown Vision Plan, which encourages the city to seek a better mix of businesses instead of the current landscape of mostly bars.

City Council member Jeanell Wilson says she knows Mango’s isn’t an ideal business for the CBD — on a recent visit, “I got there, I saw one person in the front and one person in the back and [my friend’s husband] deejaying. And it was very smoky,” the 65-year-old Wilson recalls — and has considered that the owner, John Kowkabany, may just be sitting on the property until he can cash in on the license. (Folio Weekly was unable to reach Kowkabany for comment.) Ultimately, however, Wilson says she voted to deny the rezoning proposal not because she was worried about the revelry so much as the parking.

“They were taking it from, like, 85 patrons to something like 335,” Wilson says. The CBD doesn’t have enough parking to accommodate 
all those people, and she says the developers behind Surfer: the Bar didn’t want to build enough new spaces.

In fact, Wilson points out, the developers proposed zoning the space as mixed-use instead of as a bar, which would have lowered the parking requirements by 80 percent — from one space per 100 square feet to one space per 500 square feet.

“They added this one little [retail] part to designate it as a shopping center,” Wilson says. “[The proposed space] is not a shopping center. It’s still a bar.”

“Parking is always something we are going to be playing catch-up with,” counters Terry DeLoach, who has served on the Jacksonville Beach City Planning Commission for almost two decades. “But at some point, you have to look at your city center as a place where people use alternative modes of transportation.”

DeLoach says St. Augustine is a good example of a city not letting parking issues impede development. “When you go to downtown St. Augustine, you expect to park a little ways away from your destination and walk,” he says.

DeLoach was disappointed in the City Council’s denial, and is concerned about the precedent it sets. “The parking thing is just a scapegoat,” he says. “This is supposed to be a pro-business mayor and a pro-business City Council. So I find it interesting that they decide to be so selective. I think the city just flat-out didn’t want another bar.”

For now, Mango’s stands — loud and smoky and not really what you’d consider family-friendly, either — as the city still searches for ways to attract new businesses. There’s no need to invest in more parking or more police presence. The same incentive for families to visit the CBD remains, as does the incentive for entrepreneurs to move there: almost nothing.

Saig sounds disappointed when considering what could have been. “Nobody even focused in on the increase in property tax revenues, the increase in employment would be tenfold from what Mango’s has,” he says. “The new economic growth as a catalyst that this brand would provide this area — nobody focused on that.”

Other East Coast cities — Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Virginia Beach — have been more receptive to bringing Surfer: the Bar to their shores. Greg Saig and his investment team are now exploring those opportunities.

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