Brown’s reform could reshape Downtown
by David Chapman, Staff Writer
Mayor Alvin Brown’s reorganization of City government includes a Jacksonville Downtown Development department that could reshape Downtown.
Brown officially proposed his government reform legislation Tuesday to City Council and the new Jacksonville Downtown Development function is listed under a new Economic Development Commission that reports directly to the mayor.
The economic development commissioner would be one of five commissioners, along with the chief of staff, reporting directly to the mayor.
Reporting to the economic development commissioner would be five functions: Planning and development; the office of economic development; Jacksonville Downtown development; public-private partnerships; and sports and entertainment.
“Overall, it means a structure will be in place to have an efficient Downtown agency for the first time,” said Don Shea, Jacksonville Civic Council executive director and part of Brown’s economic development strategy team.
While the department is labeled “Jacksonville Downtown Development,” an official name has yet to be decided.
Shea said Tuesday that Brown’s Downtown-focused department can succeed where past Downtown organizations failed because they “didn’t have the horsepower.”
That “horsepower” comes in the three-part form of the right structure, staff and budget, he said.
Shea said the budget for the department will come from savings realized in the City reorganization. The money would be used to provide economic incentives to attract businesses, residents and an overall increased activity level Downtown.
Those savings will be determined in the second phase of Brown’s reorganization plan, which is expected after the first phase introduced Tuesday is approved by Council.
Other activities within the new Downtown department include development and redevelopment, parking facilities and enforcement and working relationships with the nonprofit groups Downtown Vision Inc. and Visit Jacksonville.
Shea said the new department will be more proactive than reactive in seeking businesses and people to locate Downtown.
The Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, which currently oversees both Downtown and overall Duval County economic development, has been renamed the “Economic Development Board” in the reorganization.
Upon approval of the reorganization by Council, the board will focus solely on Downtown, according to Brown’s staff.
The administration’s goal is to file a local bill in the Florida Legislature in the 2013 session to dissolve the JEDC and explore which functions would be included in a new local bill.
Brown campaigned on creating an independent Downtown development authority.
Shea said more time is needed to discuss Downtown’s boundaries, which could be defined by land-use boundaries instead of relying only on existing boundaries or other specific outlines.
He said the St. Johns River will be “uniting not dividing” and Downtown would include property on both sides, as it does now.
Shea said that ideally, the river and Laura Street, the Northbank corridor that was recently upgraded, could each be used as an axis for growth, which would take an “inside-out” approach by starting growth within the core and moving toward those defined boundaries.
Bringing residents Downtown is part of the equation, he said.
He said the strongest candidates to live Downtown are those that already work Downtown. He said the 50,000 daytime employees could generate 5,000 Downtown residents, given an assumed 10 percent probability rate.
“We just haven’t given them much of an opportunity,” he said.
In his example, once 5,000 residents are living Downtown, the base is built and grows. Shea thinks that benchmark could be reached in five years.
It starts with investors who want to test the market with Downtown housing for the prospective residents.
“A couple of risk takers will take the risk and provide a product that is untested in the marketplace and that product will be absorbed and others will follow,” he said.
Shea also believes Downtown’s infrastructure of sewer, water and power doesn’t need much improvement because they are in place.
After Council approves the proposed reorganization, the existing Jacksonville Economic Development Commission would focus mainly on Downtown development, City officials explained.
Projects outside of Downtown would be handled by the Office of Economic Development and the mayor and then be moved to Council for review.
Given the new Downtown department’s proposed structure and the way Downtown progress has materialized over the years, Shea said he believes Council will have the attitude to try something new.
“It’s time to breathe some life into it,” he said.
While the administration wants Council to sign off on the reorganization legislation by mid-December, Council President Stephen Joost said Tuesday that Council would not rush the process.
“We’re going to take as much time as we need to review it,” he said.
“This is a major change. This isn’t just ordinary legislation,” he said.