Less than two years ago, it was hard to imagine that in place of the Downtown’s per-usual tumbleweeds and shadowy voids, a couple thousand people might want to spend a day (or three) hobnobbing in the city center amongst creative types. But, during 2014’s One Spark event, roughly a quarter of a million humans did just that. Say what you will about the now-annual thing that happens downtown — and Folio Weekly’s writers have plenty to say in the pages that follow — Elton Rivas and company know how to bring people to the urban core.
Regardless of how many people attend One Spark 2015, when the masses do descend upon Downtown Jacksonville in early April, to anyone paying attention, the city will look markedly different.
The Haydon Burns Library is vacant no longer. A spruced-up Hemming Park buzzes nearly every afternoon. Pedestrians and cycling city councilmembers can safely cruise the Southbank Riverwalk. A fancy café/candy shop/ cocktail lounge occupies the once-vacant Seminole Club, while the Marble Bank Building, Laura Street Trio, and Bostwick Building are each in different phases of repurposing. Thanks to Downtown Investment Authority (DIA)’s loan program, five new businesses will soon occupy previously empty spaces (because beggars can’t be choosers, two are sandwich franchises), including the longtime-empty retail space below the 11E building.
Without even broaching improvements to the surrounding neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Riverside, or Springfield, it’s clear Downtown has some forward momentum.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.
For a city-center, the completion of all of the above projects represents a floor, not a ceiling. To be sure, blighted buildings still dominate the cityscape. A majority of retail space (or potential retail space) sits unoccupied. Residential property values in the urban core remain inverted — so much so, the director of the DIA says it’s going to take a special kind of “urban pioneer” to invest there. And, while Hemming Park has plans to install it, there is currently no public wi-fi network Downtown, making Jacksonville one of the few big city centers in 2015 without high-speed, wireless Internet.
A few weeks back, I had an interesting discussion with a friend who owns a small, tech- related business. As his business expands, the friend’s main problem continues to be recruitment. Competing not just with traditional talent-magnets like New York City and San Francisco, but with emerging Southeast tech-hotbeds like Austin, Charleston, and New Orleans, Jacksonville is consistently a hard sell for the young, well-educated, and diverse individuals sought by businesses like that of said friend. As a dedicated businessperson, the friend left no stone unturned in his attempts to remedy the situation, even taking his concerns to the Jax Chamber. There, he says, he was given the following advice on how to sell the city to potential employees: Tell them about cost of living.
Ouch. The truth hurts.
For now, when selling Jacksonville to a young person who may be considering living four-deep in a tiny apartment under the lights of New York City or amid the bustle of New Orleans, what else could you possibly say about Jacksonville? Are you going to tell them about Downtown Jax’s new Jimmy John’s sandwich shop? Will you treat them to a brisk jaunt on the fancy new walking path? You wouldn’t want them using the Skyway to get the lay of the land. And you certainly wouldn’t want to lie and say #downtownisonfire — unless, of course, you’re reporting a smoldering urban inferno, in which case, in lieu of hashtags, dial 911.
Jacksonville is in a tough spot. If you’ve lived here for any stretch of time, Downtown seems relatively exciting. Not so much from the outside looking in.
Endless studies show a majority of Americans now wish to live in communities where they can walk to work, to shop, and to eat. From empty-nest-boomers to newly graduated millennials, Americans are choosing brownstones over white picket fences. Suburban sprawl is out; urban renewal is in. Cities from Flagstaff to Raleigh are investing in their urban centers, not only to placate the creative class, but because a strong central hub is more likely to attract the next generation of taxpayers. Even for those who never visit Downtown, a densely populated, economically thriving nucleus creates a tax base that can benefit everyone.
The DIA knows all of this and uses similar justification for many of the Authority’s proposed initiatives. Still, without a pension deal, the city is virtually broke, and when it comes to revitalized downtowns, lots of other cities are way ahead of Jacksonville.
All this is to say, with the progress that’s been made in the urban core, the importance of the next few months should not be oversold.
One Spark’s festive atmosphere will undoubtedly shine a positive light on the improvements to Downtown, especially for those still unaware of said improvements. And, just as this mass of humanity arrives to reap the rewards of progress, a rare opportunity presents itself: There are elected offices still up for grabs, including eight city council seats, sheriff, and the top job — mayor. Choices made in the May 19 elections have the potential to advance or impede progress. And, while voting is a respectable start, a highly aware, progress-minded bloc of voters would be ideal.
So, whether you come for One Spark or to hang in Hemming Plaza or to eat a damn Jimmy John’s sandwich, I encourage you to make your way Downtown in the coming weeks.
After you do, I urge you to become civically engaged. Find out who supports progress, economic and otherwise. Learn who is realistic about the sacrifices necessary to solve the pension crisis. It’s never been easier to be informed on candidates and issues. Check out the Jax Young Voter’s Coalition website (jaxyoungvoters.com). Follow Folio Weekly’s own politico-columnist AG Gancarski on Twitter and read his election coverage on floridapolitics.com. Pick up a copy of the Times-Union. Read some back issues of Folio Weekly (folioweekly.com) — plug, plug. Befuddling enlightenments found on the pages of this publication include which council person saw the devil in a modern art museum, and which one sees the devil, well, everywhere. You’ll also be clued in to which candidates think everyone — regardless of sexual preference, or gender identity — should be given equal protection under the law (hint: neither of the current mayoral candidates).
Again, find out who supports progress. I mean real progress. Then, of course … vote.