After an ambitious plan to revitalize downtown got the green light from City Hall last week, the Downtown Investment Authority now calls the shots for redeveloping the city’s core.
Many studies offered recommendations in the past to renew downtown, but until now never has an agency had the decision-making power to create a plan and execute it without City Council approval, a streamlined process that was one of the main reasons behind its creation.
While the Downtown Investment Authority now oversees downtown redevelopment, it has yet to achieve significant financial independence. Still, that likely won’t hinder the authority from carrying out the smaller projects in its plan to develop both sides of the St. Johns River and taking steps toward the more ambitious ones.
But to accomplish all of the goals it set for 2025 — which includes developing vacant tracts of city-owned land and bringing 10,000 new residents to downtown — the authority will need more money from the city, according to the people behind the creation of the entity and in charge of running it.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it, [and] I think for that to happen, the DIA needs to be able to show whether it can perform,” said Bob Rhodes, a member of the Jacksonville Civic Council, who sat on its task force that recommended the Downtown Investment Authority. “They have to understand dollars are tight, and the DIA will have to build a track record of execution for bigger dollars to come.”
In its report issued in 2011, the Civic Council task force looked at other areas in Florida and found successful downtown renewals were led by an entity solely focused on redeveloping the area that was both independent and well-financed.
The authority’s independence would make it a “one-stop shop” that could approve projects and attract businesses with incentives without navigating through multiple levels of government. It would also protect the authority from the changing priorities associated with elected officials entering and leaving office and allow it to pursue a plan beyond a single mayoral administration.
While the authority would have multiple revenue sources, the report said the city should also consider using money from its general fund to supplement the authority’s budget.
The authority has created a plan to develop both the Southbank and Northbank areas and a timetable to accomplish it, but it has yet to determine how much many of the projects will cost.
The task force’s report estimated the authority would need a budget of about $29 million.
Aundra Wallace, chief executive officer of the Downtown Investment Authority, said the authority’s budgetary needs will be determined by specific projects, and it was too early to say what that would be.
“What I will say is this. To be effective, it takes two types of resources: human capital and financial capital,” Wallace said. “We’re going to need staffing. We’re going to need financial resources to do what everyone has envisioned us to do.”
Oliver Barakat, chairman of the Downtown Investment Authority’s governing board, also said he didn’t know an exact amount the authority would need, but that the city will need to commit money for it to carry out the plan.
“I think once we get these elections behind us, we’ll need to have a serious conversation with the community about what type of commitment we’ll make to revitalize downtown.”
The authority collects a tax on downtown properties, but much of that money has been spent or dedicated to future projects.
It will also receive a budget approved by the City Council, which is $2.5 million in its first year. Any projects or incentives offered beyond the amount of its budget will need the approval of the council.
Councilwoman Lori Boyer, a non-voting member of the authority’s board, said she believes it will gain more financial independence as downtown property values increase and its tax collections go up.
However, she said she doesn’t believe the council should bankroll a large budget for the authority to freely spend, and that high-cost projects and incentives should still be approved by the council.
Rhodes said the first few years will be crucial for the authority to prove its credibility with elected officials, which will be critical for its success. Convincing the community will be equally as important, Rhodes said, because the city can’t afford to fund the plan by itself.
“The city will never have all the resources to get the job done,” Rhodes said. “It’s really going to be the private sector to get it done.”
In the immediate future, the authority will use its first-year budget to begin installing public art, bike racks and banners to identify key areas downtown.
Those projects amount to roughly $800,000, and the authority has yet to choose how it will spend the remainder of its budget. Wallace said options are improving several city-owned properties, like the old courthouse, old City Hall and Snyder Memorial Church, to increase its marketability.
The authority will also begin pursuing its bigger projects, including a redevelopment of the Landing and Shipyards properties and converting one-way streets into two-way streets to make them more pedestrian friendly.
Wallace said the authority’s board next will review proposals for a redesign of the Landing. He said the authority will soon begin work with city officials to have its street conversion put into the city’s capital improvement plan.
The council must approve the capital improvement plan, and any deal involving the city-owned Shipyards or Landing tracts would need the council’s approval.
That makes it clear the authority will still need to closely work with City Hall even with its new independence, Wallace said.
“Let’s just cut to the chase: We only have such a finite amount of money,” Wallace said. “Anything we do will take a relationship and partnership with the city. Our job is to vet the projects … and then work with the city administration and City Council.”
Christopher Hong: (904) 359-4272