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Another Shot at Downtown

Tom PattonLaura Street, the Southbank, Metropolitan Park, Friendship Fountain. In the last month or so, the Peyton administration has announced proposals for each of these areas as part of an ongoing effort to revitalize downtown.

The mayor has introduced legislation to spend $23 million of three of the projects, as was reported earlier this week in “The Jacksonville Observer.” According to the news release from the Mayor’s office, the latter three of those were “selected based on reprioritization and best need for downtown Jacksonville.”

In an effort to deflect the argument that, so soon after a heated debate over a property tax increase, and with many still stinging from the imposition of storm water, trash, and other fees imposed in 2007, the administration says the money is in a capital improvement budget, and it can’t be transferred to the city’s operating budget. The Mayor is lobbying members of the city council to vote for the funding, and nine have signed on. One more is all that’s needed.

The Mayor’s office says there is more than $215 million in private investment in the Southbank area, accounting for a little less than 10 percent of the residential capacity that experts says would bring downtown residency to a “critical mass”. Met Park is certainly in need of repair. The pavilion leaks, and the shelters for the park benches have withstood years of sun and weather. It could be a showplace in the downtown sports district. And Friendship Fountain, if we’re going to keep it, needs to be repaired and make into the focal point of the Southbank it once was. So the projects are worthy, and likely nobody disputes that.

The Laura Street project, which would turn Laura Street between Hemming Plaza and the Landing into a two-way street with additional room for is envisioned to make Laura Street a place where people will want to walk and shop and stop for a bite, should there be shops and restaurants when it’s all done. The beginnings, perhaps, of the destination that downtown needs to be to make it viable again. The question is, then, is this the right time to undertake these efforts?

I had an interesting conversation Wednesday with John Meserve, the newest member of the Jacksonville City Council, on “The Jacksonville Observer Radio Show.” Councilman Meserve said during the course of the interview that the city council has some difficult choices to make in the coming budget year, because tax receipts were not likely to increase due to growth, and spending has been cut down to the bone. Money is going to be extremely tight at city call for the next couple of years, by most accounts. So it’s understandable that some members are approaching this legislation to spend money on downtown with a wary eye. With every seat up for re-election in 2011, members seeking re-election or another office will need to be able to defend any vote to spend that $23 million. And in the end, it all comes back to priorities.

There is a school of thought that the answer to downtown revitalization is making it a priority. It would appear that Mayor Peyton has done that, at least to some extent, with these plans.  “These improvement projects are vital to the continuing revitalization of downtown and will only enhance our public spaces and river access to our residents and more than 13 million visitors who visit downtown each year,” Mayor Peyton’s news release reads. “We currently have a very competitive bid market that will translate into better utilization of these downtown funds to enable downtown to be in an ideal position post-recession to attract future private capital investment.”

Rather than grandiose plans, these seem to be targeted, manageable projects, and maybe that’s the right way to approach the downtown dilemma … in small bites rather than huge, sweeping projects. If success breeds success, then focusing on some of the more visible pieces and showing it can be done could mean greater acceptance the next time one of the larger projects is proposed. Right now, those don’t have the best track record on the planet, and being able to show some progress might begin to turn the public perception around.

 Mayor Peyton is also likely correct that leaving them to further deteriorate would not make the area attractive to new development when the recession ends. Indicators are that’s not likely to happen until the second half of 2010 at the very earliest, and then it will be very slow. Developers are likely to be very cautious when they start looking for new projects, and if the city hasn’t made any investment in downtown, it certainly seems unlikely that a developer would either.

Yes, there are difficult choices to be made, but maybe one of those difficult choice is to say “yes” to repairing some of our riverfront features in a time of tight budgets. Is it the right time? No matter when it’s done, there will be those who say there should be other priorities. But if downtown is to be the focal point of our fair city, then it needs to be brought into focus. And the further it declines, the more it will cost to repair.

7 Responses »

  1. As much as anyone 'including me' wants the downtown to come back, its not happening. It is like throwing money after a dying mall like Regency Square. The people have move out and on and you cannot bring it back. Not with money. You have to do it with excitement. And development has to be real not fake like it has been.

    If you want people to come back downtown, enhance the Landing and remove all one-way streets and take away the parking meters. Jacksonville is one of the only cities that has parking monitors circling the block throwing tickets at visitors and guests like grenades. OH YEAH, I want to return to the city where I was hammered for pounds of parking fines. What a joke.

    Oh, and did I mention the 'crime incubator' underneath the Mayor's window at Hemming Plaza. Five hundred million in development on four corners of Hemming and we still have this problem. The city's showcase 'best in State' library has become a national favorite in the 'where to stay cheap and use the internet' guide for homeless. Are you kidding?

    If the Mayor commits this money to establish his legacy, then he better be sure that the downtown area churches buy into drinking and partying at all hours for days on end. Otherwise, it is a money pit and will return when jobs return to downtown Jacksonville and those who work in Jacksonville - LIVE IN JACKSONVILLE.

    Don't they get it. When sandwich shops can't make it, this shows how few jobs exist downtown.

    If the Mayor spends this money, it is time to have St. Johns County pay for it. These people have fled our city for nicer schools and come here to work. I say TAX EM.

    Finally, build a park on the Southside. We were promised one at Touchton and now it looks like the city has sold it for development. WHAT"S UP?

  2. Yea! Tax those of us down here in St. Johns County! Lord what a goof. Never mind that some of us own business up in Duval and keep some of you employed.

  3. Small bites? Between Bay St, Laura St and these new projects we're around $30 million in one year.

  4. This is just Peyton's attempt at leaving a (positive) legacy.

    And what the heck, compared to what we're used to throwing away downtown, $23 million ain't that much.

  5. Ever notice how many times these projects are undertaken at the end of a Mayor's term limits? Wonder if that's deliberate so that they can get the credit for getting things done but don't have to worry about dealing with any negative fallout when the promised benefits don't materialize.