Richard David Smith III of EU Jacksonville writes about the young entrepreneurs spearheading downtown Jacksonville's revitalization.
Cameron Beard (Owner of Underbelly), Jack Twachtman (Co-Owner of Burro Bar) and Grant Neilson (Media Manager of The Elbow brand) // photo by George E. Deacon
Kicked into existence in 1979, I was born on the tail-end of what is commonly referred to as Generation X. My generation was the offspring of the often tarred-and-feathered Baby Boomers, and we’re usually thought of as the aimless kids who brought you plaid, grunge music, and web design. We were the meandering daydreamers who were too busy cranking The Pixies CDs, quoting Tarantino films, or saying “amen” to Janeane Garofalo to be caught up in material matters. If the clichés are to be believed, we were disenfranchised by broken Reaganomics and jaded from watching happiness elude our fiscally responsible parents as their retirement plans seemingly got sucked into the same black holes that were just beginning to be understood by Stephen Hawking. No, we weren’t going to let our lives be ruled by money—and we rejected it in a poetic, brooding Ethan Hawke-like manner as we stroked our goatees in distaste for the American reality that had been foisted upon us as we woke up from the “American dream.”
Enter the Millennials. Despite having cynical Gen Xers as their mentors, they have now burst onto the business scene with a rejuvenated outlook towards the economy. A Pew Research study shows that—even while entering a rocky job market—this youngest generation of adults currently has the most optimism of any in the country. Often taking matters into their own hands rather than sitting back and waiting for jobs to open up--sometimes out of raw necessity--Millennials have fostered a refreshing entrepreneurial spirit in this country that has lead to the creation of a plethora of upstart businesses and profitable innovations. More likely to listen to the prosthelytizing of Jay-Z over Kurt Cobain and following in the footsteps of the Zuckerbergs of the world, the Millennials are taking America by storm. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our own front yard.
According to Downtown Vision, Inc., since the Super Bowl, the number of bars and clubs has increased by 39%, and more than a third of all bars are owned by the under-40 crowd. Technically speaking, there are no precise dates of when the Millennial generation begins and ends, but it is generally considered by researchers as consisting of people who were born between 1980 and 2000, give or take a few years. You get the picture; young entrepreneurs are taking command and stroking their paint brushes over the downtown J-ville canvas in Keith Haring’s Ghost-like exuberance.
“Almost all of Downtown Jacksonville’s bars are locally and independently owned and operated, which is something that’s truly unique,” according to Terry Lorince, executive director of DVI. “Attracting a younger demographic to the urban core has proven to be a huge boom for Downtown, and I commend these young entrepreneurs for taking the risks and believing in their city. Often, they’re the ones willing to take the risks and buck tradition to make things happen; it’s already happened in places like Norfolk and Portland. We’re just lucky to have these guys Downtown and hope that more young people will bring their imagination and entrepreneurial ideas to Jacksonville.”
31-year-old Jack Twachtman co-owns Burro Bar, a “craft beer dive” that showcases live music almost every night of the week. He says that the success of the Millennials downtown comes down to them being in touch with what people really want as well as the ability to accept that they oftentimes have to operate under less than ideal circumstances.
“I think we’re better at looking at a space, seeing the potential, and accepting that it be less than perfect,” says Twachtman, “Downtown Jacksonville is ripe for people like us. Where others see a run-down building, we see charm and character. If the bathrooms are a little gnarly, it’s not the end of the world. To be fair, those of us who are Millennials with businesses downtown are all more or less in the same business, and it’s one that can be pretty forgiving when it comes to how polished everything has to be. The other cool thing is that even though we have our own tastes and styles and run in our own circles, we all get along and are working towards the same goal.”
It’s interesting that Twachtman mentions “working together,” as this seemed to be a central concept regarding what the Millennial generation was taught in school. At times criticized as anti-capitalist and anti-success, it could be that the principles of this way of thinking are beginning to really pay off in the crowdfund-peppered present incarnation of the free market. After all, cooperation is a central tenet in the formation of projects such as The Elbow, which was launched as a creator in the inaugural One Spark and is a digital cooperative resource of downtown clubs (found at www.theelbowjax.com) that includes Burro Bar, 1904, and Underbelly and aims to raise awareness as to the happenings in the district in an effort to get people to come out to the area.
“I think it’s been a perfect storm of variables that have led to the Millennials essentially taking charge of Downtown,” says Grant Neilson, 31, media manager of The Elbow brand. “I could probably come up with a long list of reasons, but from my perspective, it basically came down to the fact that we were tired of living in a city that we weren’t proud of. We felt cheated that we had never seen this ‘Bold New City’ that we had been promised for decades. So we collectively changed the conversation from ‘Why aren’t things better?’ to ‘How can I make things better?’
Downtown-centric events such as Art Walk and One Spark help tremendously in bringing business downtown. You’d think this would be obvious for any large-scale event happening downtown, but Twachtman says this isn’t necessarily the case with Everbank stadium-centered sporting events.
“Until more people live downtown or public transportation improves to make it more accessible, we really do depend on big cultural events,” confesses Twachtman, adding, “One thing that surprisingly seems to hurt us more than help us is sporting events. The traffic patterns for EverBank events are designed to shuttle people out of Downtown as quickly as possible which is a shame. Something that could really impact the downtown businesses ends up taking regular business away. Our worst weekend without fail has always been Florida/Georgia weekend.”
As Underbelly owner Cameron Beard points out, it isn’t all rays of sunshine for Millennial merchants. The 33-year-old says that Jacksonville still presents its share of obstacles for young club owners. He points to the “bureaucracy of Jacksonville” as the biggest one, stating that there are a lot of older people in positions of power that want Downtown to remain the way it is. Still, Beard holds out hope for a brighter future.
“There’s a core group of people, creatives in general, who are all on the same page, and I think it becomes a strength-in-numbers kind of thing,” says Beard. “I think we’ve created an environment where there’s a lot of possibility and opportunity for someone with a cool idea to get it done.”
So are we finally onto something truly transformative here? Optimistic Jacksonville residents have been saying for years that the city is on the cusp of going to the “next level” (to lift a popular phrase used by Mayor Alvin Brown). Pessimistic residents say that they’ve seen these sorts of pipe dreams come and go before. Even former mayor Tommy Hazouri once jokingly said to us that, “the cusp is getting rusty.” Who knows? Perhaps the influx of investment capital from aggressive Millennial investors, combined with the help of some upcoming strategy initiatives from the Downtown Investment Authority, will provide just the chance mutation that Duval needs to make its next evolutionary leap.