It’s a damp, hot Friday night in what is known as a “dead block” in downtown Jacksonville. The streets are relatively quiet, save for a few nascent office workers shuffling past on the sidewalk. A large stage is set up near an empty lot on the St. Johns River, men in yellow vests finish carrying barricades to block off the section of Bay Street that sits next to the river between EverBank Field and the half-constructed and abandoned Berkman Plaza II tower. The empty lot is the Jacksonville Shipyards, and for the first time in years, thousands of people are about to pour into the vacant grassy area for the 2014 Jazz Festival.
The Shipyards have seen several pie-in-the-sky developments start, and then fizzle out, over the past two decades since the 40-plus acre industrial site ceased functioning as a port in the early 1990s. After the port’s closure, the area saw a flash of activity when it was rebranded as the River City Music Sheds, an outdoor venue that hosted several concerts and festivals for its brief existence. Then, due to noise complaints from the neighborhoods across the river, a new property owner, TriLegacy Group, LLC, tore down the wooden buildings along the river to make room for a 10-year, multi-phase, billion-dollar mixed-use project.
The project utterly collapsed in the mid-2000s after the City lost nearly $36.5 million in a contract dispute and pursued legal action through a federal grand jury probe. Finally, after nearly 15 years and three owners later, the City partnered with LandMar, a new developer, to transform the Shipyards into a scaled-back version of the TriLegacy plan. But then, the global economy had a massive meltdown in 2008, and LandMar filed for bankruptcy, compelling the City to foreclose on the site – essentially resigning the property to stagnation.
Since then, the Shipyards have been a glaring symbol of the past two decade’s worth of failed downtown redevelopment. Enter – Shad Khan.
When Khan purchased the Jaguars in 2011, there was an aura of mystery surrounding what he would do with the franchise. One of the first decisions he made as owner was invest over $1 million into City-owned EverBank Field, improving player facilities in order to attract high-caliber free agents. Then he became a lead investor in the first One Spark Festival.
People began to notice that Khan was not only interested in improving his new NFL franchise, but had bigger intentions to improve the community it was located in.
This was further emphasized when Khan financed the purchase of the historic Laura Street Trio in downtown Jacksonville. Since then, Khan has continued to flow millions into the city, not haphazardly, but with a firm strategic vision. He has recognized how tightly the future of the city and Jaguars are interlaced. When he looks out of EverBank Field and sees 40-plus acres of vacant riverfront property, he doesn’t see 20 years of failure, he sees a whole new opportunity for investment – an opportunity to make downtown Jacksonville a viable entertainment and sport destination in the Southeast.
This is why the potential for the Jaguars to take over the Shipyards and develop them is so exciting.
While still shrouded in mystery, the Jaguars have been vocal on how they view the Shipyards as a vital asset to Jacksonville and the Jaguars. Khan has told the media he views the Shipyards as the front door to the stadium.
The prospects for the space are tantalizing. If the Jaguars develop the property, they envision a 365-day per year destination, with apartments, retail, entertainment, hotels, public space and a world-class sporting facility that could potentially host smaller-scale sporting events, (Jacksonville Armada soccer games, anyone?) or function as indoor practice facilities.
Since the renewed rumblings of interest in the property, the City decided to move the annual Jazz Festival to the riverfront property in order to reactivate the site and get people excited again. It worked. This year’s Jazz Fest was one of the most successful yet and offered a glimpse into what the Shipyards could become, especially if they’re integrated into the Bay Street entertainment district, The Elbow, along with Met Park and the surrounding sports complex.
The thing is, the Jaguars have the money and vision to make this idea happen. The world’s largest scoreboards were just a glimmer in Khan’s eye this time last year. Now they illuminate the nighttime sky. Khan wants the Jaguars to win.
More importantly, he wants Jacksonville to become the best city it can be. The Shipyards may be that chance.