Downtown Jacksonville is no longer on the verge, but is actually undergoing a transformation. This transformation is not a rapid one, but rather the thoughtful type of renewal that it has long needed. It’s understandable if you’re cynical about it. Jacksonvillians have long heard mayoral campaign promises about downtown, but the banter has only served to turn optimism into what feels like an end-of-the-rainbow type hunt—but even the most avid skeptic can’t ignore the seeds that have begun to sprout.
Downtown’s Art Walk has become one of the city’s landmark recurring events. Hemming Park is making strides with regular events and has become a hot spot for lunch throughout the week with its convergence of food trucks and live music. The Candy Apple Cafe & Cocktails is one of the most happening spots in town for food and drinks. There are several more nightspots found in The Elbow, considered downtown’s Entertainment District, and even some local breweries are looking to have a downtown presence. The Shipyards, The District (formerly known as Healthy Town), new plans for The Landing, and national recognition for Laura Street—it’s all part of the renewal, but some new businesses and plans aren’t enough to paint the full picture of downtown in 2016.
Downtown Vision, Inc.
There are numerous players when it comes to our budding downtown area ranging from local government and entrepreneurs to nonprofit organizations like Downtown Vision, Inc. (DVI). DVI was formed in 2000 at the request of commercial property owners who fund the organization through a self-assessment. They’re able to provide services that the city does not. They are responsible for the First-Wednesday Art Walk, the Downtown Ambassador program that provides safety and cleaning services, marketing, advocacy, and much more. DVI works closely with the Downtown Investment Authority and the Chamber. They are a conduit between several groups that have interest in the downtown area and the Jacksonville community. The staff of six is passionate, even tenacious about their mission, and you won’t find anybody who articulates that passion more poignantly than Katherine Hardwick, DVI’s Marketing and Events Manager.
“How can you market something before there’s a vibrant product?”
Hardwick came on in 2009 after the recession made things even more stagnant than normal. It wasn’t an easy time to start, considering what she was tasked to do. Asks Hardwick, “How can you market something before there’s a vibrant product?” She recognizes the pessimism that grew over the years, but knows that there is no overnight answer. “Little by little, projects have started to come on line. Over the last three to four years, things have really picked up.” She points out Dupont Center, Brooklyn Apartments, Greenfield Construction projects, and the revitalization of the Chop House, in which DVI advocated against demolition. “People are investing in what’s wonderful about our history and making it new again,” Hardwick says.
Downtown has its anchor in Laura Street and the buzz has gone national. The American Planning Association named Laura Street one of America’s five Great Streets. From Hemming Park to the Jacksonville Landing, Laura Street is the center of downtown activity. You’ll find MOCA, the main branch of the Jacksonville Library, Chamblin’s Bookmine, and the iconic roundabout. It serves as the nerve center for so many downtown events, but as Hardwick points out, you’ll also find “three dead corners in one of the major gateways into the Northbank of downtown.”
The Laura Street Trio and Barnett buildings are what make up the “dead corners” that Katherine is referring to. It’s the missing block on a vibrant landscape. SouthEast Group is working to get things lined up and asking for $8 million from the city towards the revitalization. The plan includes 80 residential units and a boutique hotel. Hardwick didn’t mince words about it, telling me that “It’s one of those projects that has to succeed. It means a lot for the vitality of our core.”
There are so many opinions on what downtown needs, and additional residential units are not often one of them. Keep in mind that retailers typically want at least 10,000 immediate residents to feel their venture is sustainable. Currently, downtown Jacksonville has somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000. The developers and DVI recognize there are also pragmatic concerns, like creating more affordable housing, better access to grocery stores, and less panhandling. It’s all part of the recipe towards a lively downtown hub.
Only Time Will Tell
Keeping vigil over Laura Street are the hands of time and the iconic symbol of the Jacobs Jewelers clock. The giant Seth Thomas timepiece was one of only 100 manufactured back in 1901 when its was purchased by Jacobs Jewelers and was originally located at the corner of Bay and Hogan streets. After the Great Fire, Jacobs relocated with the clock to 32 West Forsyth Street, where it remained until 1930 when they moved to their current location at the corner of Adams and Laura. In 1973, a Jacksonville City Bus collided with the clock and the old ticker needed major repairs. The original mechanics of the timepiece were an 8-day chain movement with gears, and after the bus incident it was upgraded to an IBM movement. The current clock was recently restored by Burden Clock of Cincinnati and has a GPS movement and chimes. During the recent Laura Street renovations, the clock was donated by Roy and Delorise Thomas to the City of Jacksonville where it will remain as a beacon of Jacksonville hospitality for another 115 years.
The Spark District
The entrepreneurial forces behind Jacksonville’s Innovation District have formally dubbed it the Spark District. The Spark District is working to bring innovators, artists, and entrepreneurs to the urban core. It’s one of those things that Jacksonville residents may not immediately see the value in because it doesn’t furnish the instant gratification that entertainment or dining venues provide, but it’s the type of initiative that helps build cultural and economic cornerstones that will hopefully help downtown blossom. A recent press release announcing the new moniker also indicated that the Spark District will spotlight resources for entrepreneurs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The district is set in the Northbank core of downtown along the St. John’s River. Ed Baldwin, one of the entrepreneurs spearheading the effort and founder of the Jacksonville tech startup Profile Gorilla, says, “The Spark District will attract entrepreneurs, artists, and startups to downtown, creating a central point of focus in Jacksonville for innovation.” It’s about continued community creation, providing resources, and encouraging investment.
What Does It All Mean?
It’s important to discuss all of the landmark projects that are happening, but some are still awaiting full green lights. Shad Khan’s Shipyards and the rebirth of The Landing are game changers. The Shipyard plans include a hotel, amphitheatre, and office spaces. The Landing is already making meaningful space for the arts and community entrepreneurs and is planning what is going to be a massive renovation which could mean a whole host of new eateries, bars, retailers, and cultural incubators. At the most, you may see more news on what’s to come and if we’re lucky, a groundbreaking ceremony or two. That’s not to rain on the parade. The important thing is that we are beyond the point of acknowledging that something needs to happen and are even past the point of debating what that looks like. People with power and influence have collaborated with people who have a passion and a vision for seeing downtown Jacksonville become a focal point for the arts, entertainment, and business.
So what will it look like in 2016? While you may not see a dramatic departure from what it looks like now, you will see this: years of promise being transformed into action, and a hell of a lot of energy. While we have a long way to go before downtown is that crowning epicenter that makes Jacksonville a 24/7 kind of city, we are getting closer. Katherine Hardwick urges people to “come down and see for yourselves.” Come have lunch during the week at Hemming Park. Experience First-Wednesday Art Walk. Shop at Chamblin’s Bookmine. Stroll through MOCA. Patronize the many locally owned retailers. Hit The Elbow for drinks on the weekend. Support this revitalization. The time for being cynical is over, and the time for participation is needed.
DVI’s goal right now, according to Hardwick, is to get “people to do one more thing.” It’s simple and it makes sense with the pace of the area’s development. More commerce begets more retailers, venues, eateries, bars, businesses, etc. So in other words, if you come down to see a show at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, they want to encourage you to have dinner at one of the great locally owned and operated restaurants. If you are coming to Olio for lunch, they want to encourage you to patronize a local shopping spot. Visit downtownjacksonville.org for news about new projects, events, and itineraries.
I’ve lived in six states and most were major metropolitan areas. What I think is different about Jacksonville is that there is not a vibrant convention center and the associated BUSINESS expense account dollars to support downtown. At 5pm working people drive out of downtown and head home. The landing restaurants have dirty tables with birds perched on them. The restaurant workers and boat operators are poorly trained if trained at all about promoting activities and they show no pride in their city. When visitors see people living on park benches, are they going to sit and sip their Starbuck’s coffee and discuss where they’ll be dining or will they clutch their wallets and keep walking?
Jacksonville people are poorly paid and underemployed and they alone are not going to be enough to support a Monday thru Friday downtown economy. People who ARE employed go to Town Center to spend their disposable income. You need to go after out of town spenders and business travelers who are coming for conventions or tourism. The convention center parking lot is littered with garbage bags from the previous nights tail gate party. Beer bottles are what you pass buy on the way into the convention center. A dirt parking lot (so don’t where nice shoe) and dead flowers are evident where there should be landscaping. This is how Jacksonville greets business attendees at the convention center. Football alone, yachts, will not turn around this downtown or bring higher wages or improve early education. Jacksonville is not competitive.