EU Jacksonville writer Liza Mitchell writes about the artist/designer Jen Jones and her role in the redevelopment of Brooklyn.
As far as building the perfect life, Jen Jones had it all on paper – artistic talent, a satisfying career as a healthcare and corporate art designer, three beautiful children and the kind of passion that makes people stop talking and just listen. She took great care in fostering relationships, both personal and professional, and was always willing to lend an ear or a helping hand. Community visionary Vince Cavin was listening over lunch last fall when Jones confided in him that something was missing. She was lonely and longed to be part of a team of leaders that could teach her the things that she could not teach herself. She hungered to sink her teeth into something with substance, something that really mattered.
“I had finally identified why I was not feeling a lot of contentedness in my work life,” she says. “So I let the cat out of the bag.”
Across the bridge, the desolate stretch of landscape along Riverside Avenue east of the St. Johns River seemingly continued to resist all efforts to revitalize the lonely corridor. The manicured gardens of the Cummer Museum and the clean, architectural lines of the neighboring, new construction sat in stark contrast to the vacant wasteland littered with the accouterments of the undesirables. In a not-so-distant past, the area was considered unsafe and a haven for illicit activities and the like. Small hints of promise flickered on the dark, neighborhood map, only to be stamped out by the heaviness of decay and neglect. But there was still the dream of a better future, if only someone could lead the way. Jones was delighted when Alex Coley of NAI Hallmark Partners suggested she come by his office to learn more about his new venture, Unity Plaza. The project would reshape the empty parcel of Riverside Avenue into a multi-faceted, creative space with a mix of 18,000-square-feet of combined retail and restaurants and a 2,000-seat performing arts amphitheater.
She admits to having “zero awareness” as to why she was there. Maybe it was her involvement on various civic boards or her relationships within the art community. But it didn’t matter how she got there. What mattered was what lay ahead. Jones was elated that the project, which was in planning over the last 10 years, was finally coming to light and would serve as a beacon for artisans in all of the senses. It would be a completely self-sustained union of art, music, fellowship and educational opportunities for all ages and backgrounds. This could be that something big, that something that really mattered.
“It wasn’t until our second meeting that I realized I was being courted for a position,” Jones says. “I felt privileged to be receiving this information about something so special. I was in tears when I left, because I understood the breadth and the width and the depth of what they had been envisioning for Jacksonville. It had been in development for 10 years, and it was actually going to happen. I was overwhelmed that this space was going to exist for me to bring my children to.”
Imagine a dream--the most perfect dream that would elevate a city and its creative community to new heights. Now imagine that someone presents you with a set of blueprints and names you the architect of that perfect dream. When Alex Coley recently announced that Jen Jones was named the Executive Director of Jacksonville Unity Plaza, Inc., the not-for-profit organization that will oversee the project by the same name, it was as if he handed her the keys to the future, a concept she is only beginning to wrap her mind around.