Is Jacksonville Serious about helping Small Business Owners?

February 19, 2007 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

During the final months of Mayor John Delaney’s administration, the city announced plans for the Bay Street Town Center, four blocks on Bay Street that would be enhanced with better lighting, wider sidewalks with pavers, and hopefully many small businesses to make the area a destination for both Jacksonville residents and visitors. Nearly four years later, the sidewalks have been redone on one side of the street (completing half of the plan is par for the course for a Jacksonville capital project) but private entrepreneurs have been slow to follow, and many of the storefronts still sit vacant.

Now, blame for this can be spread around the table.  By investing the money in infrastructure around one collection of storefronts owned by a small group of landlords, you might as well hand them a letter saying, “Raise the Rent!”  For a small business owner, who is taking a bit of a risk Downtown versus an area with an established nightlife following, it can be a large deterrent.


Mark Hemphill’s two venues (Mark’s  and Dive Bar) do extremely well on Friday and Saturday night, and Club TSI  has a strong following, but a three block district has to be more than three places.  The main reason downtown areas become vibrant has to do with connectivity, one place feeding off of another.  Imagine going to the Avenues Mall, and seeing over half of the storefronts vacant – it wouldn’t work, and would collapse in little time.  The Mark Hemphill’s are doing their part – will others follow?

So that begs the question – who is responsible for bringing new merchants to Bay Street, and for that matter, downtown?

Downtown Vision
For whatever reason, the borders of DVI ’s Business Improvement District only extend east to Market Street, meaning that a third of the Bay Street Town Center (and ironically, all of the places open after 5PM) are outside of DVI’s borders.  The two most visible things that DVI is responsible for is the downtown ambassador program and the Art Walk. Two very successful and needed programs, bu they serve a different purpose.

Jacksonville Economic Development Commission 
Since Mayor John Peyton dissolved the Downtown Development Authority, the DDA’s duties were transferred to the JEDC.  Now, the JEDC  has the responsibility to develop downtown, recruit businesses to Cecil Commerce Center, promote the city for Sporting Events, and whatever other economic development opportunities arise.  So, if the JEDC has the choice between meeting with some company to bring 500 jobs to Cecil, or a potential downtown restaurant – the economic impact of which is very difficult to measure – who do you think they will choose?

This doesn’t even take into account the things that a business will need after they’ve made the decision to come downtown, such as information on sign ordinances, outdoor dining licenses, or how to get a parking spot for freight loading.  Explain to me how a merchant can concentrate on running their business, while they are trying to weed through the City of Jacksonville’s red tape?

Now, resources for all of these places exist, but what merchants need is to have a one stop shop for all of this information – with as much as possible online, since they are generally busy during the business day.

When John Peyton was campaigning for Mayor, one of the things that he promised was to streamline the development process.  Well, most of the things that he has aimed to improve deal with large businesses; people developing places like master planned communities, office parks, and industrial centers.  Not only do these places not typically invest in downtown, all of these groups have a decent number of employees, where they can have one or two tasked with dealing with red tape.  How can a small business afford to do that?

If we are really serious about developing this downtown, then we need to be serious about assisting the people who make a downtown successful, and that is the small business owners, the people on the street making it happen.