7 months ago

J Magazine Fall 2017

The magazine of the rebirth of Jacksonville's downtown


SPECIAL REPORT The Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center, bless its heart, is still the grand Neo-Classical Revival monument that, in its time as Union Terminal, welcomed thousands of people to Jacksonville every day for more than a half-century. These days, it’s being crowded, and even obscured, by the new Jacksonville, with the Lofts at LaVilla smack in its front yard and the new Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center arising on its north flank. But if you get the right angle, the Prime Osborn retains much of its grandeur and some of its dignity, after having been repurposed 30 years ago into an expansive meeting facility. “With 265,000 square feet of space,” its marketing material says, “the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center is large enough and versatile enough to accommodate gatherings of virtually any size.” But it’s not a convention center. 28 J MAGAZINE | FALL 2017

Vendors begin packing up as an August tech conference winds down at the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center. Its floor space and easy parking make it ideal for community events, trade shows, QuiltFests, Home & Patio Shows and even proms and elegant balls — attracting locals who can drive in for the function then drive home in time for dinner or bed. But it is not the convention center that Jacksonville needs if it is to become the multifaceted destination city that attracts purposeful visitors from all over the country and world to discover the city’s charms — and, while they’re at it, have a good time, spend some money and maybe invest here. A train station, especially the one that was the largest in the South when it was built in 1919, needs to be accessible but away from the city center; a true convention center must be in, and integrated into, the city’s beating heart. That realization is bubbling among city, civic and business leaders, and there are ideas and even plans — or maybe a plan — quietly swirling around and awaiting the right moment to go public and on Jacksonville’s Downtown agenda. But let’s find our way there. Convention centers are not merely big boxes but can be confoundingly complex: whether and who to build what kind of facility where and in conjunction with what — and with whose money and toward what goals? With the wisdom of more than 30 years and the Prime Osborn experience, Jacksonville’s leaders will be much smarter this time. Before they propose a plan, they should filter it through the cautionary study by Heywood T. Sanders, an urban development scholar, published in 2014 as his book “Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power and Public Investment in American Cities.” Sanders recounts the rocky love affair over the past half-century between cities, eager for economic development and downtown renewal, and convention centers. Rosy recommendations from a small group of industry consultants spurred many cities to invest tax dollars into more and ever bigger convention centers to compete against each other in a “metropolitan arms race.” “Over and over, consultant market and feasibility studies for new or expanded convention centers have forecast a significant return in terms of new convention attendees, visitor spending, economic impact and jobs,” Sanders wrote. But he said those projections typically fell short. “The rhetoric of convention center boosters in city after city has not been matched by actual performance … Much as consultant forecasts of demand and center performance have proven faulty, the basic assumptions about convention and trade show attendees, their visitation and spending patterns, have proved unrealistic.” Jacksonville was a bit late to the convention-center trend in the 1980s and still made some classic mistakes, mostly betting on the come: The project would “clean up” the area around the terminal. Convention planners would want to come to a facility because of its striking architecture and history. A major convention hotel would be built just across the street. Meanwhile, conventioneers could stay at hotels on the other side of Downtown and get to the center via the Skyway Express and water taxis up McCoys Creek. The center would lead to construction of “a new showcase entrance into Downtown” from I-95. A $34 million “business and professional office complex” was announced across the street. There would be residential development along McCoys Creek and in Brooklyn. None of that happened. Still, City Council had approved the $24.5 million project in June 1982 on a vote of 15-1, and the renovated, expanded and renamed center opened Oct. 17, 1986. The Times- Union quickly reported bookings beyond the consultants’ projections. But within a month of Prime Osborn’s opening, 150 meeting planners toured the center, and the T-U reported that, while they were impressed with the building, some said they “will not consider booking conventions in the city for at least three years because of a lack of shopping, entertainment and hotel rooms.” Mollie Grulke of Deerfield, Ill., was more blunt: Jacksonville’s hotels looked “rundown” and local restaurants offered little other than seafood. “I would not bring a group to Jacksonville. There is nothing to do.” Thirty years later, that hasn’t changed nearly enough. In a new report, consultants from the Strategic Advisory Group (now part of Jones Lang LaSalle or JLL), hired by the Downtown Investment Authority, say they interviewed more than 30 meeting planners, and most rated Jacksonville’s attractiveness below 7 on a scale of 1-10. “The areas that were cited most frequently as challenges,” the report said, “were walkability, the lack of a sufficient hotel package, airlift, the need to ‘cleanup’ Downtown, safety and the overall lack of ‘things to do.’” Meanwhile, Prime Osborn has something going on in at least one of its rooms 85 percent of the time — but over 2014, only 27 percent of its total available square footage was actually used, compared to an industry standard of 70 percent. Jacksonville still does not have a convention center. So what, you reasonably might ask. Why do we really need one? The reasons now are significantly different from the pragmatic, two-dimensional ones that were used 30 years ago for the Prime Osborn — which essentially were cleaning up the LaVilla area and bringing in out-of-towners to spend money in hotels and restaurants. FALL 2017 | J MAGAZINE 29