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J Magazine Fall 2017

The magazine of the rebirth of Jacksonville's downtown

SPECIAL REPORT against

SPECIAL REPORT against other cities. But a huge step would be fulfillment of current Downtown revitalization plans. When SAG showed its meeting planners renderings of pending plans — the Shipyards, The District and Riverwalk extensions — and “visions” like a potential aquarium, they perked up considerably. Hotels. A convention center must be supported by a full-service convention hotel, or hotels. We have the Hyatt Regency with 951 rooms, which Caliendo said had its best revenue year in 2016. It’s backed up by the Omni, but that would not be enough for a successful center. Harris is bringing his nerds back to the Hyatt in 2020 but maybe not after that. “We are on the edge of outgrowing the hotel, as far as meeting space, and that’s probably limiting the organizations that would consider Jacksonville.” expectations for technology are exponential.” Amenities. A new convention center would have to be part of a well-coordinated and timed master plan that would include not only the facilities and services to host conventions but also a wide range of accessible amenities that make the city attractive to attendees — restaurants, nightlife, shopping and beach excursions and creative use of our most appealing venues. A cocktail party on a river boat? A general session at EverBank Field? Some very cool receptions have been staged in the Jaguars’ Scenes from inside the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center. “Over 85 percent of the respondents said they were more likely to consider Jacksonville after viewing the images,” the SAG report said. “Specific feedback included the observation that this kind of transformation would catapult Jacksonville as a destination that would compete with many of the major Southeast convention destinations.” The city needs a self-confident vision of itself, the consultants said, and a “holistic plan” and a consistent brand promise that differentiates Jacksonville. Do we have such a vision and plan? For starters, consider these four major components of the chemistry necessary for a successful convention center: Location. Jacksonville learned the hard way about the importance of location. Similarly, Savannah built its convention center across the Savannah River from its downtown — which looks good way over there but is not easily accessible, walkable. “Location, location, location,” Wallace said. “It’s location and timing.” To capitalize on the city’s assets, the center would be in or adjacent to the heart of Downtown. Other hotels are being planned for Downtown, including at the Shipyards, the Laura Street Trio and the District. Berkman Plaza II was rezoned as a hotel a few years ago, but the would-be buyers back then couldn’t lure a chain flag. It would if there were a nearby convention center: “No doubt about it,” Astleford said. Still another hotel could be built as part of a new center. Infrastructure. There would be no point in opening a convention center without adequate support services. “You have to have a marketing team,” Mayne of the venue managers association said. “You’ve got to have quality service organizations with restaurants and hotels. There are a lot of pieces that have to support the convention. A/V, all those types of services, with companies that are qualified.” “Upgrading the technology, internet access, is an important consideration,” Harris said. “Bandwidth at the (Hyatt) hotel is marginal. We have 1,000 attendees, and all of them bring several devices they need to use, even in the elevator. Our people are getting younger, and for us to survive, we have to accommodate those younger people, and their locker and weight rooms. We would need more good Downtown restaurants, beyond Morton’s and the soonto-open Cowford Chophouse. Read Jasmine Marshall’s story about the Elbow on page 86, and see if that qualifies as conventioneer nightlife. But what about other unique activities and excursions? Harris’ little-but-joyful adventures in Jacksonville were narrow and specific, but they show that meeting planners are understanding that conventioneers want more than just to meet, greet and eat; they want to experience their host city and its spirit. Dan Fenton, who led the SAG study here, consulted three years ago with Visit Denver and was quoted then as saying, “We heard from some meeting planners that when they are in the Colorado Convention Center, they feel like they are in a big space in a big building that could be anywhere. We recommended that the center create spaces where it’s possible to see the Rockies. “It should take advantage of its environment ... The words that planners most frequently associated with Denver were Rocky 34 J MAGAZINE | FALL 2017

Mountains, clean air and health.” In Jacksonville, that might be the St. Johns River, the beach and the climate and environment. An ongoing and very methodical identity and vision-seeking process called TruJax has determined that the essence of Jacksonville can be distilled into three words: “The Water Life.” And there’s another uniqueness that few Jacksonvilleans recognize, though subliminally it is a major reason we live here: While we benefit from the Florida climate and beach, we are a real city, compared to most other Florida cities. We are a diverse, livable city with a long, fascinating history and an interesting future. For just one example, the Times-Union editorial board is working with local historians and officials to inspire recognition, survey and presentation of our 500-year history, from the Timucua people through the French and Spanish occupiers, the Civil War, the silent-movie industry, the Great Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American labor union. Present conventioneers with a menu of activities like these and others, and watch Jacksonville compete on the convention circuit. The current movement for a new convention center is rooted in the 2011 Jacksonville Civic Council Northbank Redevelopment Task Force, which also recommended creation of the Downtown Investment Authority. The report recommended that a new, comprehensive center be built on some or all of the land now occupied by the old courthouse and city hall on Bay Street and be attached to the Hyatt Regency. It would be riverfront, since the city now is removing a parking lot behind the courthouse that was built over the river more than 50 years ago. Some of the two blocks could be mixeduse entertainment, retail and dining space, Fire of 1901 and such luminaries as Stephen Crane, Harriet Beecher Stowe, A. Philip Randolph, James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston. There is plenty of material for a black-history tour. If that idea is too big and undeveloped, consider the suggestion from Times-Union reader Marvin Alford for a Downtown railroad museum, using our many railroad assets — another use for Prime Osborn! You probably have not found the massive and magnificent 1919 Atlantic Coast Line steam locomotive that is displayed proudly but lonely in the middle of a parking lot behind the Prime Osborn. Not to mention the old Orange Blossom Special passenger car adjacent to the center. And of course, Randolph founded the the report said, “effectively extending our core Downtown eastward and complementing and extending the dining and entertainment district currently emerging on East Bay Street,” now called The Elbow. Since the task force’s recommendations six years ago, the city has selected Shad Khan’s Iguana Investments as the developer for the Shipyards, which ends just a halfblock farther east — with Berkman Plaza II in between. Are you connecting the dots here? Pretty much all the way from EverBank Field to the Times-Union Center. City Council implemented the task force’s recommendation to create the DIA, which is hard at work, but the convention center recommendation awaited a stronger economy and more political leadership, which came with the election of Lenny Curry as mayor two years ago. He created a Transition Leadership Team, and its Economic Development Subcommittee, chaired by John Delaney, UNF president and former mayor, unanimously recommended the city develop a convention center. It specified the Bay Street site — and simply incorporated the 2011 task force recommendation into its report to Curry. Such big projects were buried in the mayor’s in-basket while he fought through public-employee pension funding, but now a convention center has risen near the top. Curry said: “This is a very real consideration and discussion that’s happening. It’s not just talk about it and dream about it and not do anything.” The first visible step in the mayor’s mind was his inclusion in his budget for next year $8 million to demolish the former county courthouse and city hall and make the land available for development. That doesn’t necessarily mean the development will be a convention center, Curry said, “but I can tell you we have had a number of conversations with different folks about that site and about a convention center. We’re not headed in one specific direction at this point. “When we begin demolition, I’ll be able to share more because I can have more discussions with interested parties. The numbers have to work. I’m all about a rigorous return on investment.” So back to my confoundingly complex convention center chemistry: whether and who to build what kind of facility where FALL 2017 | J MAGAZINE 35