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Michel de Montaigne once wrote, “I am afraid that our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and that we have more curiosity than understanding. We grasp at everything, but catch nothing except wind.”

In the last two weeks, we have seen numerous headlines about downtown deals gone bad and the fleeting hope of grasping big dreams for downtown development are thrown to the wind, again. The feeling of bad deals is not new to Jacksonville taxpayers. It seems to be a recurring story line for us.

I grew up in Jacksonville. Went to school here. Got married. Had children. Raised them here too. Now my children are raising their children here. And through all those years of waiting and watching for something cool to happen in downtown, we are still the city with acres of river bank land that is sitting there waiting for something glorious to be built.

That’s way too many years and too many mayors to wait for Jacksonville to grow up and be what she can be.

One of the many bad deals that appeared in the headlines in the last month is the Shipyards project. Shad Khan promised big dreams and everyone in the city felt if anyone could do it – Shad Khan could. But alas, it appears that deal is turning bad too. And this one may be the worst ever for the Shipyards property which has seen many bad deals over the years. Remember the Trilegacy Group deal in 2001? Bad deal. Then the LandMar Shipyards deal where the developer declared bankruptcy and the city had to foreclose in 2009? Both of those deals had city incentives built in and more than 10 years later after the last bad deal – we are still looking at a plot of land with broken dreams residing there and it appears another deal gone bad.

So why would this bad deal with Shad Khan be the worst ever? Because the Hart Bridge ramps were torn down BEFORE we had a final agreement with Shad Khan for the Shipyards? Why would we pay local contractor, J B Coxwell more than $25 Million for this tear down without that signed agreement with Shad Khan? Is anyone asking that question or investigating why the DIA staff would allow ramp tear downs without a signed deal? If not, why?

You would think the staff would learn that lesson and not tear down ramps without a signed deal again. But it appears they haven’t learned anything because we read that the Northbank ramp from Independent Drive at the Landing to the Main Street Bridge are now going to be torn down too. Why? Maybe we are not as smart as those at the DIA but business sense tells us — you don’t tear down anything until you have a plan in place.

Lori Boyer, CEO of the DIA did tell the local news station that she had plans to hire architects to design the Landing site. Boyer said in order to maximize the amount of public park space, the most likely buildings would be two office buildings or an office building an a hotel. Again, we may not be as smart as the staff at the DIA, but we wonder if they have noticed the amount of office space for rent in Jacksonville and all over the country. Because of COVID, many office buildings have been left vacant after business owners discovered employees were more productive working from home. So why would we tell architects to design the Landing space with an office building on it? And candidly the Landing site needs a bigger investment of taxpayers ideas because that piece of land is the crown jewel of Jacksonville. There are many ideas for that prime piece of land so why should one person – the DIA CEO – be allowed to decide what goes on it?

And the last bad deal that appeared was not a shocker but was once more an embarrassment for our city. The District made news again after it appears something major happened between the developer and the lender. The lender has taken over the project. That usually means the developer failed or was unable to finish the project. The questions we as the taxpayers need to ask are these:

What does that mean for the taxpayers?

What does that mean for the deal we made with the developer?

Will that deal be handed off to the lender without any transparency of “what went down between the developer and the lender?”

Was the developer in default?

Did the developer sell his interest?

Did the developer get any incentives to turn it over to the lender?

Will the incentives remain the same even though it appears only half the amount will be spent as negotiated with the developer?

Shouldn’t all land deals be contingent on the development deal?

How is the taxpayer protected when deals go bad?

Will the taxpayers have more risk in this bad deal than the developer?

Will the City Council need to approve this deal with the lender since the deal has changed from the one they approved already?

Will the new developer appointed by the lender need to be approved by the city council?

All those bad deals sit in the lap of the DIA, the Mayor and those people behind the scenes who keep a low profile but financially benefit from our hard-earned taxpayer dollars funding these bad deals.

This morning Lori Boyer told me we would be seeing a Master Plan for developing downtown soon. We should be excited and we will try to be. But we have been disappointed so many times. Our trust level with downtown development is at ground level. Sorry Lori – that’s just the way it is right now in Jacksonville. Disappointment after disappointment breaks relationships.

We will be watching for the Master Plan to show up and we will share it with you when it does. We have some hopes that it will include projects that have gone by the wayside such as some beautiful parks, a world-class convention center, entertainment zones, high rise condos, riverfront access for boaters and one that I find interesting, a Navy ship museum! We are a military town so let’s put something up there to show our thanks and appreciation.

I’m sure you have your dreams too and we would love to hear from you. Just make a comment and we’ll capture them and share with the Master Plan team for consideration.

I hope and pray I get to see something going up downtown instead of all the tearing down before I am laid down in my eternal resting place. It would be a tragedy that my entire life and many others like me would never get to see Jacksonville become that Bold New City of the South. It was just a slogan for all those years. And other slogans followed. Still nothing.

It’s time to stop with the slogans and build Jacksonville into a destination city for new residents and people looking for conventions, vacations and fun times on the river. Can’t you see it?

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Billie Tucker Volpe Founder of Eye on Jacksonville and Leadership Consultant to CEOs/Executives


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