Being a “city kid” and having come from a truly “dead” Northeast Urban Center that was ravaged when the steel industry withered and having lived in many other cities that faced a declining downtown area but then revitalized; the economic situation facing downtown Jacksonville is not new. However, contrary to what some people may believe, the #1 factor creating the situation is FEAR. Once you address that issue and the perception that fuels that idea then you can move forward. People from the suburbs still see Downtown as a place to fear because of rampant crime; the increased homeless; difficulty with road construction and the frustration caused by changes in street directions; lack of police protection and easy FREE parking and the overall lack of amenities that don’t exist as they do in the suburbs, etc.
Until Jacksonville is willing to invest in affordable housing (which does not mean only the Berkman Plaza Condominium that more closely resembles the look of a swanky NYC hotel) that welcomes young professionals, artists and families alike; provide decent grocery stores (Winn Dixie does have it’s corporate headquarters here, right!); bring inner city crime down and plan natural and safe green space areas for people to congregate (rather than invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to elaborately house bureaucrats); and develop other amenities and incentives that propel business to relocate and compel people to LIVE downtown . . . nothing will change.
Toronto, Canada and Baltimore, Maryland changed the way their constituency viewed the waterfront. AND New York City turned around the various activities and perceptions of Times Square, which at one time was a hotbed of crime, prostitution, smut parlors and junk stores, into a welcoming tourist attraction that people are now willing to take their Grandmothers and children. They turned themselves around, as did many others. It takes a crackdown on unsavory business practices, a solid plan for implementation of viable commerce, a spectacular marketing campaign that is both for the natives AND tourism, (who doesn’t remember the “I LOVE NY” campaign) and diligence on the part of the politicians and the populace to actively evoke and create change. It can be done.
Young professionals need to believe that Downtown is a cool place to LIVE and work. It needs to have resources to qualify it as a great place to bring up their families and invite relatives to visit. And this doesn’t mean just once a month for the experience of Artwalk! Everyday could have the social, cultural and financial impact of Artwalk in Jacksonville, Florida if the right parameters were put in place.
The Jacksonville Landing was once a fabulous gathering location for everyone, long before the Jaguars existed and the performing Arts Center expanded. It is a spectacular landmark from both land and air. It could still be a jewel in the crown of the city, in the middle of the urban center, if the right investors, marketing strategies and solid business development solutions were applied. Imagine a new grocery store and artist loft apartments there! It could have occupancy that creates a sense of neighborhood while generating solid, on-going security for all who live and play there.
Once we erase the FEAR and bring viable living and businesses to downtown Jacksonville, the Town Center (which, by the masses of people there everyday, doesn’t seem to be experiencing ANY economic downturn) will only be for suburbanites. Some of them who currently work downtown may actually want to live downtown. Ultimately, if downtown rights itself, the Town Center will only be for “Cool” Wannabes!