Does Downtown Jacksonville Need A Sugar Daddy?

April 16, 2013 21 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In an email to Metro Jacksonville, a concerned follower shares work of Dan Gilbert in downtown Detroit and ponders if Jacksonville needs someone similar to step up locally.

Email to Metro Jacksonville

In case you missed this one, every city that has succeeded in redeveloping their downtown has had a sugar daddy in some form or fashion ... either a strong/long-standing mayor (Joe Riley in Charleston), a committed business leader (Hugh McColl in Charlotte), a local philanthropist (Julian Price in Asheville), or a progressive institution (SCAD in Savannah) ... maybe our Chamber needs to go to Detroit on their next leadership trip?

Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, takes on downtown Detroit

An overview of the Dan Gilbert has done for downtown Detroit since 2010 is impressive.  That year, Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, started moving his employees from the suburbs to downtown Detroit and now he has 7,600 downtown workers on his payroll.  In an interview by the New York Times, raised in Detroit, he mentioned it wasn't until he started traveling for business that he realized how much his hometown had fallen. "As I started visiting these great American cities (such as New York City and Los Angeles), it hit me - man, how did we blow this so badly?"

Worth $3.5 billion, according to Forbes, he decided to do something about it.  Determined to defeat the age old chicken-and-egg problem of who comes first, retail or the residents, Gilbert's solution is what he calls the big bang: bring in as many stores and people, at the same time, as quickly as possible. His hope is to have the streets of downtown Detroit filled with pedestrians within four to five years. The City of Detroit is assisting Gilbert in his efforts by promising to expedite permits for renovations, signs, etc. and moving out of the way. According to Dave Bing, Detroit's mayor and former National Basketball Association start, "my job is to knock down as many barriers as possible and get out of the way."

So far Gilbert's plan appears to be on the right track.  In addition to relocating his employees downtown, he operates a 24 hour surveillance command center where video live feeds from cameras around downtown are monitored to promote the idea that downtown Detroit is safe. His real estate company, Bedrock Real Estate Services, is renovating properties, wooing tenants and building apartments. Last month, he announced that an upscale suburban grocery market, Papa Joe's Market, would be opening a 15,000 square foot grocery with a full bar and outdoor seating, in the First National Building. Recently, he also announced a deal to acquire the Greektown Casino and Hotel to better integrate it within the downtown area surrounding it. Coming along with that announcement was additional retail deals including an ice cream shop by a local cupcake bakery and a multiyear lease with Moosejaw, a Michigan based outdoors and sport outfitters company, that opened a downtown pop-up store during the 2012-13 holiday season. He's also a major driver behind a seven mile light rail system, significantly funded with private dollars, expected to break ground this year.

Below, are the four keys Gilbert and local urban planners have highlighted as critical components in bring life back to downtown Detroit and attracting a young talented workforce:

1. Connecting the River to Downtown.

Jefferson, an eight lane highway, cuts downtown off from the Detroit River. Right sizing the street is seen as a way to bridge the gap.

2. Transportation

Gilbert is one of several private investors funding a $100 million light rail line between downtown, Wayne State University, Midtown and New Center.

3. Retail

They envision an urban shopping corridor on the ground level of existing buildings from the 1200 to 1500 block of Woodward Avenue.

4. Opening buildings up

He now owns most of the buildings around Campus Martius Park.  The major reason is to activate the heart of the core with complementing pedestrian scale uses clustered within a compact setting.

Oh, and as far as parking garages go, it doesn't get any better than this Dan Gilbert quote:

“When you make that lower level parking its almost like a crime," he said. "People should go to jail for that.”

Does Jacksonville Need A Dan Gilbert?

To say the least, it's exciting to see Detroiter Dan Gilbert put his money where his mouth is in attempting to turn around the downtown of his city. Typically, revitalizing a declining downtown tends to be a marathon instead of a sprint.  Gilbert's goal is to flip the script and he's off to a great start.  However, there's also some personal gain in play. If he's successful, his real estate investments stand to make a ton of profit.  If he's not, Detroit could end up with their own version of Cameron Kuhn.  For those who may not remember, Kuhn was the Orlando-based developer who swooped in to rescue downtown Jacksonville a few years back, only to end up losing his shirt.

The person who emailed Metro Jacksonville is adamant that we need a sugar daddy in some shape or form to successfully turn the corner with our on downtown revitalization efforts. Do you believe that a local sugar daddy is imperative for the successful revitalization of downtown Jacksonville?

Article by Ennis Davis