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9 months ago

J Magazine Fall 2017

The magazine of the rebirth of Jacksonville's downtown

SPECIAL REPORT ‘‘I

SPECIAL REPORT ‘‘I NEVER TAKE ANYTHING OFF THE TABLE, BUT I DON’T ENVISION A PUBLIC CONVENTION CENTER.” LENNY CURRY JACKSONVILLE MAYOR and in conjunction with what — and with whose money and toward what goals. Most of those W’s are addressed above, but there are still the “who” and “whose money” to be answered. Of three possible answers — public, private or public-private — the first is the least likely. Heywood Sanders’ cautionary career is all about publicly funded convention centers, and Steven E. Spickard, a land-use economist, once wrote: “Contrary to a popular misconception, convention and conference centers are designed to lose money. ... It is hard to be absolute because there are real-world exceptions to virtually every rule; however, even in the rare cases where revenues cover operating costs in meeting facilities, they never cover debt service.” And that’s not how Jacksonville usually rolls. “I never take anything off the table,” Curry said, “but I don’t envision just a public convention center.” He wants to bring in private investment, so a public-private mix is “the more likely scenario.” Myrick, the economic-development consultant, has worked with the founder of such a public-private project, the successful Cobb Galleria Centre in Georgia, and said, “That’s the right way to go. The private sector will always do an investment with an ROI. Government is the only entity that can build something and lose money on it.” While the public sector can contribute, perhaps land or some finance, she said private management always will be able to run a convention center more efficiently because it can turn down freebie or cut-rate requests, manage “dark” nights, solicit bookings that pay more, turn down bookings for small groups. Curry said he has an open mind. “Public-private would have to include a return on investment. If you do it right, you’re going to generate sales tax, bed tax, additional income around the area, additional property tax. And the return works.” Curry’s vision for a convention center, presumably on the Bay Street site, expanded during his July trip to see downtown development in Kansas City, St. Louis and Baltimore, accompanied by Jaguars President Mark Lamping representing Shad Khan’s Iguana Investments. The mayor saw live examples of the point above about the essential amenities for a successful convention center. “We’re already discussing what comes first — the people, the food, the entertainment, retail. There has to be a holistic commitment to all of those on the front end. This is a model that has worked in all those places. “Our river is our asset that we’re so proud of. We want to see the right development on the river. That also ties into when you move off the river. It all has to connect in a smart way.” So more Downtown development off the river, more than just the Shipyards? “I would say yes. I think so. Based on what I saw. Iguana will make those decisions. We were there together.” He’s already thinking about transportation along a suddenly booming Bay Street. “How do you move people, if there’s a convention center, to the Sports Complex and from farther west, the Landing? That will be part of the discussions.” Okay, now are you getting excited about the first swing of that wrecking ball on Bay Street? Frank Denton was editor of The Florida Times-Union in 2008-16 and now is editor at large. He lives in Avondale.

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