Jacksonville is the city I was born and raised in. But like any normal 18 year-old, I hastily moved away right after high school. It is a widely considered phenomenon that for some teenagers, the grass is greener on the other side. For me, this was indeed true. Some of my friends and I would jokingly call our hometown, “Actionville,” as a sort of tongue-in-cheek parody. One friend even made shirts with the aforementioned moniker.
It’s somewhat ironic to me that Actionville is now a phrase used in a serious context, and hashtagged online during events as a sort of Jacksonville warcry. Even more ironic is that in 2006, if you knew what a hashtag was, it was far less of a cool thing. Despite the irony, I really enjoy seeing people calling the city that, because today Jacksonville does indeed have action.
One of the most intriguing areas of current growth to me is also one of the most unexpected: downtown. During my childhood, visiting this area was not a regular activity. Though my father worked downtown all of my of life, seeing him was pretty much the only reason I would ever go. I never really thought much about it until recently. The fact is, many of my adolescent peers generally considered it to be a place where people went to work during the day, but was somewhat unsafe at night.
When I moved back to Jacksonville in late 2010, I noticed a new vigor in the city. There was a visible push to revitalize downtown. Some may not know this, but downtown Jacksonville was once truly posh, and bustling with activity. Classic locations like the Seminole Club and Hemming Park hosted events for then presidential candidates Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. The Levy Building on Hogan Street was built by the Marsh and Saxelbye firm as a luxurious, high-end department store and was later converted for office use. The Marble Bank Building, the oldest of The Laura Street Trio, was built in 1902. This was amazingly only one year after the Great Fire of 1901, which devastated the vast majority of downtown. The Bostwick Building was originally built in 1880, but was destroyed by the fire. Like the Marble Bank Building, it was also built shortly after in 1902.
Jacksonville’s history is very expansive, and would take quite some time to go through, so let’s talk about some of the exciting things happening now. Jacksonville has gotten the spotlight recently from various news and business organizations. It was nationally recognized as a number one on the “Most Improved Markets” list from September 2012-2013. It has been widely considered a good place for young professionals to start their careers. In fact, Forbes Magazine named Jacksonville as number three on its list of “top 10 cities to find a job.” It has also gotten attention as a good place to start a business. The Kauffman Foundation called Jacksonville the, “most small business friendly city,” in Florida. Our technology service job growth was ranked number two, behind Austin, Texas, in the nation by Forbes Magazine. That is absolutely incredible if you really think about it.
Local businesses have been growing as well. After their appearance on the TV show, “The Profit,” Allison and Pete Behringer, owners of the Jacksonville candy store Sweet Pete’s, reported they increased their monthly business from $7,500 to $75,000. The Behringers made such an impression on the show that the host, Marcus Lemonis, actually became an investor in the company. Mr. Lemonis is the CEO of Camping World and several other companies, with a passion for small business. He saw Sweet Pete’s as a store which could become a national brand. Lemonis put his money where his passion is, and bought the 111-year-old Seminole Club, with amazing plans to rejuvenate it. The immense 22,000 sq.-ft. building will feature the candy manufacturing area, retail candy store area and a restaurant downstairs. The Candy Apple Café and Cocktails restaurant will be run by Chef’s Garden, a local group which also has a great deal of energy about downtown Jacksonville. The second floor provides other retail spaces and The Dessert Bar, which will offer specialty beers and wine. The third floor will house the Education Center and event space, which holds upwards of 300 guests.
The Bostwick Building, or as you may know it, “The building with the jaguar painting on it at the light when you get off the ‘Blue Bridge’,” was recently purchased by Jacques Klempf, who has a vision for redefining going out to eat in Jacksonville. He announced that the building would be converted into a steakhouse called the Cowford Chophouse. This name is in homage to our city’s original name, Cowford. The Wine Lounge Concepts group will run the restaurant, which was co-founded by Klempf and two others. They also plan to feature an exciting rooftop bar component.
The Hayden Burns Library was recently purchased by the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund to be converted into a non-profit collective, and student education center. Both of these groups could have gone anywhere, but chose downtown. That says something.
Not only has business increased downtown, so have arts and culture. Jacksonville is a unique city with a great deal of diversity. There are at least 22 art studios in the downtown area, as well as at least 38 different locations to meet with your friends for a drink. In fact, American Style Magazine had Jacksonville on the top of its list of, “Top 25 Arts Destinations.”
Recently, Friends of Hemming Park rose to the occasion of truly revitalizing downtown by bringing more life to the oldest park in Jacksonville. The group’s leadership includes executive director, Vince Cavin, an original member of the One Spark team, as well as president Wayne Wood, whose civic activities deserve a separate article. Or maybe Folio already did that? They want the park to be a place where you can enjoy a yoga class, go to a concert, attend art displays, relax with your friends and much more. There are already a variety of things to do around the park including BYOLunch Wednesdays, Art Walk and Jaxsons Night Market, but expect even more surprises from the group. Interesting fact: did you know the city bought Hemming Park for $10 in 1866 from the heirs of Isaiah D. Hart, who is considered the founder of Jacksonville?
Downtown certainly has a lot of momentum right now, but one thing remains constant. Our city is only as good as its advocates and citizens. I moved back home at the perfect time. I got to watch as our urban core made significant efforts to reinvigorate itself. I met an incredible network of people by simply attending events and get-togethers. I got involved with One Spark and local young professional groups. Showing up is half the battle. They inspired me to get involved, and I actually ended up working downtown in the midst of all the action.
This city is a beautiful template. We have so many natural amenities, like the river, an incredible state/national park infrastructure and close proximity to the ocean. Our downtown is growing, but it takes the support of the community for it to succeed. We have a great launching pad for developing leaders. Whether you are inclined in a business, artistic, cultural or social sense, there are many ways to get involved with downtown. This in no way means that you shouldn’t go to the beach, or Mandarin or the Southside area. This just means if you haven’t been downtown in a while, give it a shot. You may just like what you see, and become a crucial part of the development in a really exciting city.