Hemming Plaza (Park) Needs Intensive Care

August 15, 2014 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In a guest editorial submitted to Metro Jacksonville, local resident Bruce A. Fouraker shares his view regarding the importance of saving Hemming Plaza.

The City Council Finance Committee voted 4-4 on Tuesday, August 5, to be deadlocked on whether or not to allow $1 million to fund the start-up for the Friends of Hemming Park (FOHP) program.  The FOHP program would manage the park, including the guarantee of 365 events per year.

Some of the misunderstandings in the meeting included that the park would be fenced.  This is not the case.  There would be temporary fencing for certain concerts that would charge admission; these would normally be nighttime events and would not interfere with access to the park during the day.

Above: A look south across Hemming Park towards the Bank of America Tower.  Below: The Hemming Plaza Station for the ASE sits across Hogan Street from the Federal Courthouse.  Photos by Bruce A Fouraker.

Another misunderstanding seems to be on financing. The funding for $1 million is for an 18-month start-up period and members of the committee were concerned about funding after that period. Committee members seem either unaware of, or are choosing to ignore, that once the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) changes are approved, the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) will be in charge of funds in the CRA, including Hemming Plaza.  

The City Council will control special funding for the DIA. However, depending on the area of downtown that is being taxed, the DIA will make the funding decisions on all revenue from property values above either the 1982 or 1983 base. After the 18 months, FOHP can go to DIA for more money and DIA can grant it.  The funding at this point is out of the hands of the City Council.  

This means there should be no need to limit the funding to 18 months since FOHP will go to the DIA, not the City Council. Furthermore, if any funding were to occur, it would be out of CRA funds and the City’s General Fund, which brings up the next issue the committee was questioning.

For the upcoming fiscal year (F/Y) 2014/15, the $1 million is divided into $800,000 in DIA funds and $200,000 from the City’s General Fund.  This is a one-time item on the General Fund and if FOHP needs further funding, the DIA would need to provide it.  We should not cut off funding to something that is this vital to downtown over the $200,000 being spent for one F/Y.

One other item that was contentious was the hiring of a caseworker to work out of the FOHP office.  Budgeted at $72,000 for one full-time employee (FTE), this was questioned.  The City is paying for Tillis DeVaughn to be the caseworker at the Homeless Day Center at the City Rescue Mission.  The Council Persons who object to this addition of an FTE to the budget are missing one point.

The Homeless Day Center and Mr. DeVaughn are five blocks north of Hemming Plaza.  There are two different clienteles.  First is the group who are near the Rescue Mission and who keep Mr. DeVaughn busy.  Second is the group that hangs out at Hemming Plaza and the Public Library.  Therefore, there is a need to have a second caseworker to deal with these clients.  

A view from the Hemming Plaza Station (ASE) of MOCA and the city’s “Main Library” there is an issue with the homeless population moving back and forth between the park and the library.  Photo by Bruce A Fouraker

The members of the City Council must realize that it takes more than five minutes to process the case for a homeless person and get them to all the different services they may need.  The caseworker at the Library Office will be lucky to be able to process 50 or 60 people per month into the programs that provide the help the client needs.  Many of the daytime residents of Hemming Plaza do not want help and will need to be proactively approached by the caseworker to be referred to the appropriate agencies for assistance.  

This segues into the plan to raise funds for the FOHP.  Part of the funding will be the holding of corporate events such as picnics in Hemming Park, charging the corporations a fee for the event.  Another fundraising method would be evening concerts.  This is the type program where the temporary fencing would be setup.  If FOHP can have 100,000 attendees at special events with a $15 average margin, the organization can sustain the park and their services on the $1.5 million without the request for additional City or DIA funding.

It should not be a major argument that people will be restricted from the park or from a portion of the park.  In the case of a concert, this will generally occur at night and the park is not open after dusk.  The setup may require a few hours of closure before dark depending on the size of the audience.  This occasional inconvenience is not too high a price for properly maintaining the park.

In the case of FOHP allowing daytime events, such as company lunches, in general these will disrupt only a small portion of the park.  Most events like aerobics classes and seminars will be conducted in the open with the public still using the majority of the park. We have thousands of people within walking distance of the park and we need to get them in the habit of visiting it on a regular basis.

With the use of park ambassadors and volunteers, Hemming Park will be kept clean by the FOHP.  This is a justification for the $200,000 of the General Fund being requested along with the DIA funds.  It is normally up to the Parks and Recreation Department to assume this responsibility.  In this case, the City of Jacksonville is relinquishing this responsibility to FOHP and as such they should receive funds for the care and upkeep of the park.

A view across Hemming Park towards City Hall.  Photo by Bruce A Fouraker

The City Council is responsible for making certain that due diligence is followed when a program is initiated using city funds.  However, the due diligence was already conducted by Downtown Vision Incorporated (DVI), FOHP, and the DIA. The proper steps were followed in obtaining a Request for Proposal (RFP).  There is a point where questioning the process and rehashing the steps in obtaining the “vendor” should be a moot point.  

In Tuesday’s Finance Committee Meeting, this was a case of rehashing issues that were already addressed multiple times in the planning of this attempt to rescue Hemming Park.  The current Ordinance and contract would appear to be very viable and is ready for passage.  I hope that the full City Council will pass Ordinance 2014-434 without a lot of debate and without many members not being unprepared and needing to ask a series of questions.

Guest editorial by Bruce A. Fouraker