Despite the number of articles in the local news publications, the move of Boomtown from Hemming Park was not at all certain until Thursday of last week.
On that day, Boomtown's long term lease was purchased and a date was set for vacating the premises. The way to this deal was rocky and took a decidedly legal turn. In fact the litigious nature of the relations between the dinner theatre and the landowner were so adversarial that as late as the preceding Tuesday, there was little hope that the issues would be resolved within the next six months.
No doubt feeding the misplaced certainty was the involvement of Michael Munz and the Dalton Agency in the purchase of the building. Munz, reportedly a partner in the controversial Metropolitan Parking Solutions company with Parking Garage kingpin Mark Rimmer has a reputation for moving in the powerful circles surrounding the mayor's office, and is a well known player with The Dalton Agency, one of the areas largest public relations firm.Both Munz and the agency have had a long relation with the perennially redeveloping Hemming Park area. Munz is rumored to have been behind the removal of the River City Band from their tenancy of the historic Snyder Memorial Church at the corner of Laura and Monroe in favor of a possible supperclub outfit during the Superbowl.Despite the near ruin and practical eviction of the official state and city band, however, the Supperclub never materialized and the church went vacant until the present day.The Dalton Agency reportedly considered at length moving into the historic Seminole Club at the opposite corner of Duval and Hogan before declining to purchase. Eventually the beautiful and historically significant building was purchased by urban landowning boogeyman, Chris Hionides, who has set a 25,000.00 dollar monthly rental fee for the (amazingly still vacant) structure.
Finally in the early part of 2007, they set their sights on the Park Place Plaza... and thereby began a series of events that at times descended into mayhem.
In February of this year, Robert Van Winkel and David Mayris of the Park Place Plaza group (the owners of the landmark building on Hemming Park) approached the owners of Boomtown with the possibility of an upcoming sale of the building. With general agreement for an amicable solution all parties moved forward, with Boomtown lobbying to occupy the genteel landmark next door to its Hemming Park locale.
The building had been renovated extensively during the tenure of the River City Band in ways that made it particularly attractive to the dinner theatre. Resulting from a partnership with the Jacksonville Stage Company, led by Bob Pritchard and a grant, the structure had been fitted out with a high quality stage and lighting system that would have handsomely accommodated the theatrical performances for which Boomtown is known.
However, despite the new roof (paid for posthumously by a grant given to the River City Band but left unspent until after their departure) and the structural work done at the time, the city deemed the structure unsafe for occupation until nearly a million dollars of additional work is done. (figures drawn casually from the estimates drawn up by the band at the time, but which do not reflect any other usage)
In the meantime, the landowners decided to pursue a potentially less expensive route to removing all the tenants of the building and attempted to remove Boomtown through an eviction proceedings. This strategy, driven primarily by a strangely overzealous southside attorney, Michael Bowlus, proved ultimately unsuccessful. With suits and counter-suits being filed every other day, Bowlus (who at one point was dramatically disqualified during a normally mundane technical proceeding) maintained an aggressively litigious stance which landed with a distinct thud during the early hearings.
Finally putting aside counsel, the two groups reached an amicable settlement in the Arlington location of Famous Amos, and Van Winkel and his partners agreed to purchase Boomtown's lease. With a settlement that was more than 50k but less than 100, Boomtown agreed to vacate the premises by June 15th, 2007 and the matter was finally brought to a close.
The search for a new space ran immediately against a brick wall of Downtown Jacksonville's myriad dysfunctions, and may serve as a primer for understanding why the downtown has been so difficult to revive.
The First Problem. No more Buildings Left Standing.
After 40 years of redevelopment failure and mass demolitions, over 75 percent of the buildings have been dynamited and the list of potential locations has squeezed down to almost none.
The majority of the historic stock of buildings left standing in the downtown are mostly held by the city itself. The City of Jacksonville's stewardship of buildings has been one of historic neglect and carelessness. This fact is witnessed by the recent list of the 10 most endangered historic structures recently compiled by Jacksonville's Historical Society. Of that list, half of them are owned by the city, which does not have a track record of being able to maintain or lease them.
The Snyder Memorial, owned by the city, is an excellent example. The building has been vacant for 3.5 years, and is still deemed unfit for occupation. The Marble Bank and the Laura Trio is another. For years they were owned by the city until their recent multiple flipping to the Police and Fireman's Pension Fund and then to Kuhn Properties.
All three buildings, despite years of City ownership, are wholly unfit for occupation and in two cases are faced with collapsing roofs that are the hallmark of demolition by neglect.
In a downtown that once boasted 7 live action theatres, only two are left standing; the Ritz and the Florida Theatre and all the rest have long been reduced to rubble and parking lots.
The wholesale dynamiting of Lavilla and the Courthouse properties has similarly diminished the number of adaptable buildings to a mere handful.
Finally, where there is a suitable building, as in the case of the former beauty supply company located next to the old Joann's Chili Bordello (or Voodoo Lounge) building... It is simply a lone voice in the wilderness, surrounded by the arid plains of parking lots, fully a 20 or 30 minute walk from any potential source of customers, rendering the building useless to a retail operation.
The Second Problem: The Speculators.
Of the remaining buildings, an alarming number of them have fallen into the hands of real estate speculators whose fanciful ideas regarding commercial property bears little relation to the marketplace reality of the downtown.
Primary amongst these is the notoriously inactive land baron, Chris Hionides, whose leasing agent, Mary Farwell has priced retail space within the buildings so high that the chances of a business surviving in them is nil.
The 25,000.00 dollar monthly lease rate for the Seminole Club, shown above, is merely one example of the rapacious and destructive price gouging indulged in be the Petra Management company.
The Third Problem: The Fabricated Customer base of "Downtown".
Partially, this divorced from reality pricing strategy is based on the outright fabrications and prestidigitation of the various development boards responsible for the ghastly boondoggle of downtown development.
The value of retail space bears a direct relationship to the amount of street traffic passing by the space. For example, a 10,000 square foot space in an area that only has five potential customers walking by every day is worth approximately 5% of what a 1,000 square foot space is worth in an area that has 100 potential customers walking by every day.
Obviously. If you only have five customers a day, then the space is only worth what those customers will spend.
However when estimating street traffic and potential customers, the numbers provided by agencies like the Downtown Development Authority, Downtown Vision and Jacksonville Economic Development Commission have been deliberately skewed for years to project a rosier picture than the reality.
For example, a figure that is constantly used to depict the number of daily downtown employees and visitors is 80,000 people. Thats right, 80,000 people in the "downtown" every day.
Sounds great doesn't it? After all, with 80,000 people a day walking by your building, only a total maroon couldn't get some tiny fraction of them to stop in long enough to become customers? Right?
Except that its one big fat lie.
There are actually only 18,000 people in the downtown core. Mostly concentrated in the five office towers congretated around the riverfront. Most of that 18,000 peopl have only 20 minute breaks for lunchtime, and anything other than a short dash to a fast food place before getting immediately back to the office is out of the question.
So where did the 80,000 figure come from?
By expanding the 'definition' of 'downtown.'
To reach that 80k number, the estimates include the entire san marco side of the river, and all of Riverside Avenue up to the Park on Margaret Street.
As the devastation unleashed by the various 'redevelopment' administrations has crippled and nearly destroyed the urban core, the boundaries have been aggressively pushed back to at least maintain the illusion that the 80,000 people who actually were in downtown havent decreased so shockingly.
What is the net effect of all this?
Developers (usually from the beaches, southside, or other cities) swallow that 80 thousand customers number hook line and sinker and then price their square footage accordingly.
And of course, because that the number is four times larger than reality, and no actual business can survive paying rent at the quadruple rate of its actual worth.
The result is the both the crippling vacancy rate and the unusually high number of business turnovers.
The Fourth Problem: Where the hell are the "Downtown" Agencies?
With the sale of the Park Place Building, three entertainment and food establishments are being displaced.
The story about the sale and displacement has been in the local media for approximately 3 months.
A Chinese Buffet, a mom and pop deli, and a fairly large entertainment venue are all being removed from the business community downtown.
One would assume that when the city is down to the bare bones of offerings downtown, that the various agencies would have a little anxiety about losing even more.
One would be wrong. Of the three businesses which are losing their downtown space, NOT ONE of them has been approached by Downtown Vision or the JEDC in order to assist in finding alternate spaces or keeping them in the downtown environment.
The closest thing to this happening involved the Executive Director of Downtown Vision and one of the owners of Boomtown. As the elegant representative of DVI passed him, she remarked with a look of sincerity in her deep brown eyes that she really hoped that Boomtown would stay downtown.
That was it.
It has been continuously stated over the years that there should be a central place where available spaces in the downtown are easily located, and that some help locating businesses in downtown notoriously difficult to navigate leasing environment was a downright necessity.
However this does not exist whatsoever. Businesses come and go. They open and close. They find other options out of frustration, and the agencies charged with the multi-billion dollar funded task of renewing downtown could not possibly be more oblivious to the appalling lack of retention.
In the past year, for example, there have been over ten businesses forced to move out of the downtown environs to the more expensive, but more fertile, neighborhoods surrounding the downtown and this has not even registered as a bleep on the 'redevelopment' radar.