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.



7. Independent Life and Accident Insurance Company


Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

Independent Life was founded in Downtown Jacksonville in 1920. As the company grew, it occupied various buildings throughout downtown.
In 1955, the company completed a new corporate headquarters at 233 West Duval Street. The 260 foot, 19-story reinforced concrete building's interior was dominated by the use of granite, limestone and marble finishes.

Within 15 years, the company outgrew the building. This time, it would propose a headquarters that would dwarf Gulf Life's downtown tower.

Like other corporate headquarters built by major Jacksonville-based companies, the 37-story One Independent Square was envisioned to be iconic. The design concept for the $38 million structure included a sloping base and large corner frames to provide a distinctive image not only for the company, but also as an identifying landmark for the city. It also included a botanical garden, retail shops, a 450-seat auditorium, and a 253-space underground parking garage. According to chairman Jacob F. Bryan III, the tower illustrated the company's belief in Jacksonville's future. In 1974, the company moved into their new structure overlooking the St. Johns River at Bay and Main Streets. Now, known as the Wells Fargo Center, it held the title of tallest building in Florida until 1981, when One Tampa City Center was completed.


Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

In 1984, the growing company's assets topped $1 billion for the first time in its history. By 1985, the insurance company's downtown workforce had grown to 1,310. Independent Life's fortunes took an abrupt turn for the worse in 1992. The chickens had come home to roost for Florida's insurance industry with Hurricane Andrew ripping through South Florida. For the first time in its history, Independent Life lost money, recording a loss of $15 million. A year later, annual losses doubled to $36 million.

In 1995, the company's board of directors agreed to join Houston-based American General Corporation at the purchase price of $362 million. Soon, a company based in downtown Jacksonville with $1.4 billion in assets and $340 million in annual revenue was no more. With the move, downtown lost another 700 employees once operations were relocated to Nashville, TN.

In 1997, reflecting on the loss of Independent Life and other major home-grown companies in Jacksonville, J.F. Bryan told the Jacksonville Business Journal that "People don't spend money in regional offices like they do in home office towns. Jacksonville loses from a philanthropic aspect."

18 years later in 2015, we're still witnessing the reality of J.F. Bryan's words.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com


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