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With no funding and scant staff, Jacksonville's new Downtown Investment Authority faces many hurdles before it can piece together a plan for future development

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on October 2, 2012.

It was his first public appearance after being elected mayor last year, and Alvin Brown dedicated it to explaining to downtown business owners how he was going to transform the area.
"The real question is, how do you give people a reason to believe again in downtown?" Brown said during that May 2011 speech.

One answer, he told the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, would be to establish an agency focused on downtown, a group that would attract development and lay out a strategy for the area.

Just over 16 months after he gave that speech, such an agency - known as the Downtown Investment Authority - is on the verge of beginning operations. Although it took longer than Brown wanted, getting the idea through the City Council was a political triumph.

Now, though, the hard work starts.

The new authority begins its life with no money, scant staff and an out-of-date development plan as well as the realization that a portion of the community sees more investment in downtown as folly.

"At this point, " said Don Shea, a downtown development expert nominated to serve on the new authority's nine-member board, "no one trusts anyone."

In the coming weeks, the board members will be confirmed by the City Council - they all made it through the council's Rules Committee on Monday - and they'll be able to get on with the work of generating that trust. Their likely initial tasks: hiring an executive director and developing a plan.

That plan, at least in the short term, might be the most important of the to-do list items. Until the authority returns to the City Council with a blueprint, the agency has little actual autonomy and no money.

The lack of funding could be one of the biggest hurdles facing the agency, with the increment funding districts set up on the Northbank and Southbank not bringing in enough to pay for future development. The Southbank fund brings in more than a million dollars more than it pays out in debt service, but that money is now swept into the general fund. The Northbank fund, on the other hand, is held responsible for about $2 million more in debt than it raises, with the general fund making up the difference.

GAINING TRUST

The agency also will have to cultivate the trust of the council, the development community and others in the area - a job its development plan might help address. One hurdle faced by any downtown development plan is the work that has been done in the past, work that often has led nowhere.

A lot of the negative feelings about downtown were earned by meandering studies, ineffective programs and other missteps, said Jim Bailey, another nominee to the board. "We keep changing direction and stepping all over ourselves and we can't seem to ever get there, " he said.

Now, Bailey hopes, the downtown agency will focus on practical things: dealing with the perception that downtown lacks parking, helping landlords work with tenants, making downtown clean and safe.

Those ideas might make their way into the downtown planning document, which participants stress won't be just another study of issues facing the area.

"People involved with downtown are frustrated with the plethora of plans and the dearth of action, " Shea said.

Actually taking action - taking ownership of the issue - is one of the strengths such an agency can bring to the redevelopment struggle, said Frank Nero, who had run the last Jacksonville agency focused on downtown.

"It keeps the issues in the forefront of the community, " he said. "The challenge that downtown development has had in Jacksonville is making the case why downtown is important for the entire city."

That doesn't mean growing the area is easy, said Nero, who now heads up a development agency in Miami.

"People keep looking for a single silver bullet when it comes to revitalizing a downtown area, but in reality, multiple issues need to be done in parallel with each other, " he said.

For Jacksonville, the initial focus, Shea said, would likely be on boosting the number of people living downtown. More customers on the street should lead to more interest in the area by merchants, creating a virtuous cycle.

DOWNTOWN RESIDENTS

Typically, about 10 percent of a downtown workforce should live in the area, which in Jacksonville means about 5,000 people. Right now, only 2,400 live in the urban core.

At the same time, the downtown agency - and Brown's administration overall - plans to continue trying to convince residents elsewhere in the city that downtown matters.

One way of doing this, the mayor said, is to have downtown join in when things are happening elsewhere in the city, or even in the broader region. During The Players, for example, the mayor said he wants to have events downtown for those not heading out to Ponte Vedra Beach.

Although events won't of themselves have a long-range impact on the area, they provide a way to attract people from elsewhere in the city.

"You've got to give them a reason to believe they should come downtown, " Brown said.

That could be as simple as encouraging a better taxi service to link the rest of the county with the urban core, making it easier for visitors to visit and then get home safely, he said.

Convincing parts of Jacksonville's large, spread-out population that the fight is worth it, said Nero, who works throughout Dade County but says businesses coming to the area focus on downtown Miami. "We have terrific cities, but downtown is really still very important from a business perspective, " he said. "When multinational companies come to the area, downtown is where they look."

And companies are doing the same here, said Jerry Mallot, the JaxChamber recruitment expert who helped set up the downtown authority. While the authority will have plenty of hurdles to overcome if it is to make a mark downtown, businesses are already getting more interested in the area.

For Brown, the focus now is on keeping that momentum as his new agency tries to bootstrap itself into existence. He, for one, is confident it will work.

"We have momentum, " Brown said. "We're moving forward and we're going to have an impact."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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