Seven Decisions That Killed Downtown

August 18, 2015 69 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

During the late 20th century, changes in the nation's business policies and practices dramatically impacted our central business districts. Some, like Charlotte and Houston, came out as winners. Others like New Orleans and Jacksonville were dealt blows they're still working hard to overcome today. Ever wonder why Downtown Jacksonville has too much office space on its hands? Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with local leadership or the popularity of our rapidly growing suburbs.

4. Charter Company

Charter is the one downtown-based company that grew into an international conglomerate faster than the skyline’s upward march in the 1970s and 80s. Like a bad premonition, its fall from grace was just as swift as the decline in need for a new office tower in downtown today.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

The Charter Company was founded in 1949 by Raymond Knight Mason. Initially, in the mortgage, banking and development industries, it expanded into the gas and oil industry in the late 60s and early 70s, acquiring gas stations, tanker contracts and a refinery in Texas. When the Arab Oil Embargo struck in 1973, Charter cashed in, becoming a Fortune 500 company and the apple of Wall Street’s eye.

Charter also purchased the majority of du Pont Trust’s interest in Florida National Bank (see page on the rise and fall of FNB), when Congress forced du Pont to divest itself of a certain ownership percentage of FNB. Charter’s downtown headquarters were located in the Universal-Marion Building. Located at 21 West Church Street, the modern 19-story tower was the tallest building in the Northbank when it was completed in 1963.

By 1981, Charter’s sales totalled $5 billion and the time had come for the company to put its mark on Jacksonville’s skyline. Charter teamed up with Southern Bell, proposing a 30-story skyscraper that would house both of the company’s offices. With nearly 1 million square feet of leasable office space, the Charter/Southern Bell Tower would be Jacksonville’s largest. Now, known as EverBank Center, a notable feature of the 447-foot tower is that each floor has 16 corner offices.

Unfortunately, Charter’s fall from grace would be quick. On July 29, 1982, four of the company’s senior executives died in a helicopter crash in Ireland. At the same time, Charter took a beating when a serious surplus of crude oil led to a major oil glut in the 1980s. Hemorrhaging revenue, Charter backed out of plans to locate offices in the Charter/Southern Bell Tower, which was completed in 1983.

Less than a year later, downtown’s lone Fortune 500 company laid off 200 of its downtown Jacksonville workforce, filing for protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law on April 20, 1984. By 1985, Charter’s downtown workforce was down to 350. By the time it emerged from bankruptcy protection in 1987, the majority of its 180 subsidiaries had already been sold off. What was left of the company was then relocated to Cincinnati, OH.

Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

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