Metro Jacksonville's Kara Holmes dives deep into the heart of Baymeadows, where investors have rediscovered a collection of forgotten possibilities.
The seven buildings that make up the Freedom Commerce Center are spread out in a way that makes it feel more like an uppity University campus rather than an office park. A nature preserve borders the south end of the campus, and was the center of concern when the park was being developed. The original plan was to fill over 230 acres of irreplaceable wetlands. Not only would development destroy wetlands, it had the possibility of drying up two of Jacksonville’s most important creeks that originate from the area. After much debate, the size of the complex was greatly reduced, and the developers tried to preserve the wetlands surrounding it.
In the late 90’s, during a booming real estate market, plans began to develop for two mega retail centers: the familiar St. John’s Town Center and the Freedom Commerce Center by West Palm Beach-based Goodman Co. Goodman's plans for Freedom Commerce Center also included extending Sunbeam Road from Philips Highway to Southside Boulevard by building an overpass spanning Interstate 95.
It was a race against time and money. Both entered development around the same time (back in the early 2000’s). At the time, the economy was teetering on the edge of a steep cliff, threatened by the premise of war and a declining stock market. Co-existence was a gamble that could destroy the side with the losing hand. One would snag the high-end retailers and the other would be left with the scraps. St. John’s Town Center eventually became reality while controversy over filling in hundreds of acres of wetlands doomed Freedom Commerce Center's project.
In 2006, an agreement was reached that resulted in the developer of Freedom Commerce Center being given 357 acres in northern St. Johns County in exchange for turning over 665 acres at the commerce center to the St. Johns River Water Management District. The land swap also allowed the developer to retain ownership of 62 acres that could eventually be developed for office, retail or multi-family residential use.
In 2008, Baymeadows home values began to decline. That was around the same time the Freedom Commerce Center started to fall apart. Within the last year, values have risen 21.4%. Compared to the rest of Jacksonville (36.8%), 78.7% of individuals living in Baymeadows rent rather than own.
Last year, Crocker Partners set their sights on the Freedom Commerce Center. It had gone into foreclosure and they acquired it for $27.8 million. Tom Crocker has big plans for the office park, and told the Business Journal of Jacksonville that his company was investing $5 million to $10 million dollars in its renovation. They hope to draw in large back-office operations with the multimillion-dollar makeover, and boost the dwindling job market in the Baymeadows area. It could result in the creation of hundreds of new job opportunities. InComm has already signed an eight-year lease, expanding their offices by 13,000 square feet.
Map courtesy of Cushman & Wakefield
With millions of dollars worth of renovations in the works, the Freedom Commerce Center is finally getting the attention it has needed. It fell under the shadow of the Town Center’s success, and has been struggling to keep tenants. It is a beautiful campus bordered by a nature preserve and in an excellent location. I look forward to seeing the improvements Crocker does to rescue the, once forgotten, Freedom Commerce Center.
Editorial and photography by Kara Holmes