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How Jacksonville made the big time

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Once on par with Birmingham, Jacksonville has taken bold steps to create a Super-sized gap

Sunday, February 06, 2005

KELLI HEWETT TAYLOR

News staff writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Today, Super Bowl XXXIX puts the eyes of the world on this mid-sized town, proving wrong the critics who said the former industrial city didn't have the stuff to land such a massive event.

Fifteen years ago, Jacksonville and Birmingham looked a lot alike in terms of population, infrastructure and amenities. Jacksonville even had a nasty stench from a manufacturing plant. It kept tourists driving south to cleaner-smelling beaches.

But the 1990s drew these cities down different paths, as Jacksonville evolved to the "next cut" of cities, alongside Nashville and Charlotte, and Birmingham struggled to keep up.

The Birmingham and Jacksonville metro populations are still similar at just over 1 million. But Jacksonville, long known simply as the home to rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, now boasts a new baseball park, football stadium, arena, equestrian center, monorail system, water taxi service, additional parks, a library overhaul and $1.5 billion in new roads and infrastructure improvements.

Meanwhile, Birmingham area leaders are still debating a domed stadium, an expanded civic center and a major mass transit project. The struggles persist between county, city and legislative leaders.

Lessons for other cities:

Jacksonville's is a story of planning, commitment and cooperation between residents and leaders. That story offers lessons for mid-sized metro areas such as Birmingham, still trying to design a future and sell voters on the major projects that can jumpstart a city.

"There is an energy going on here - not just in sports or the Super Bowl, but the vision of what we wanted Jacksonville to be," said Michael Kelly, president of the Super Bowl host committee.

Kelly said Jacksonville's keys include forethought and cooperation by past leaders, the voters' nod to a $2.2 billion sales tax plan in 2000, and the influence of a persistent shoe mogul who brought pro football to Duval County. But football is just one element of the success.

Business people in Jacksonville say the foundation of the change can be traced to 1968, when the Jacksonville City and Duval County governments joined, reducing the turf wars among officials fighting for a share of the pie.

Plenty of people praise the combined Jacksonville city and Duval County government.

"As a developer who deals with the government for a living, it is remarkable how efficient they are," said Peter Rumell of Jacksonville, CEO of St. Joe Co., a mammoth Florida real estate company, and co-chairman of the Super Bowl Host Committee. "It is a huge advantage when you are trying to muster the resources to get something done."

In the 1980s, Jacksonville officials began to crunch the numbers and make the push for professional football - a move many residents favored. It took 14 years to land the team, but they landed a new NFL franchise 1993 with a controversial $125 million stadium renovation. The city has since paid more than $60 million in upgrades, despite a decline in Jaguars ticket sales in the last year that some say is a result of the small market size. Shoe mogul steps up:

Much of the football success goes to shoe mogul Wayne Weaver, who owns the Jaguars.

Weaver, a Georgia native, fell in love with Jacksonville in the 1980s after a few golfing trips with his brother, and began chasing a football team. When the franchise finally came through, he sold his shares in 9 West shoe company and relocated from Connecticut to Jacksonville. From there, he launched Liz Claiborne Shoes.

"He liked the area," said Dan Edwards, Weaver's spokesman. "He saw the potential of the region."

Weaver's enthusiasm and determination helped win the Super Bowl bid, using creative ideas to overcome the obstacles faced by a mid-sized city. For example, luxury cruise ships sailed in to provide thousands of additional hotel rooms needed to house the Super Bowl guests.

Jacksonville officials say it isn't simply a lesson in attracting pro football - it's the commitment to a common goal for the good of the region, whatever that goal may be.

"There's a history of this city doing progressive things," said Mayor John Peyton. "We have also had really strong, unified business leaders to help this county grow. I have watched this city literally transform itself."

That transformation continues, and Jacksonville is wrestling some of the same challenges as Birmingham. Jacksonville has yet to expand its convention center, cure its public schools, boost downtown living, or overcome lingering racial tensions.

Jacksonville residents hope the Super Bowl exposure will help folks pinpoint Jacksonville on a map and reduce outdated Southern stereotypes other cities so often face.

Dispels myths:

"This puts us on a national stage and helps dispel some of the myths," said Arlington resident Cindy Sadler, a volunteer coordinator with the Super Bowl Host Committee. "We don't date our sisters and we do wear shoes. People don't realize all Jacksonville has."

The Birmingham area has its successes - school improvements, national honors for the chamber's Region 2020 planning group, UAB's biomedical expansion and a growing hub for motorsports fans and auto manufacturing.

And Birmingham was the cradle for high achievers such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, chef Frank Stitt, American Idol Ruben Studdard, Miss America 2005 Deidre Downs and plenty of others.

But this area has shied from big-ticket commitments, such as a domed stadium, expanded convention center and major transit projects. Disagreements between the city and the suburbs, the county and the region still permeate area politics.

Attempts last week to reach Mayor Bernard Kincaid for this story were unsuccessful.

"Birmingham has to work hard to maintain its status as the economic center of the state," said Gene Hallman, president of the Alabama Sports Foundation. "I do think a greater level of communication can occur and we can try to work better on a strategic vision for the area."

In 1998, 57 percent of Jefferson County voters rejected a 1-cent countywide sales tax and 2-cent lodging tax plan called MAPS, or Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy.

The plan would have raised $526 million for about a dozen community projects, including money to overhaul of the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center, build a domed stadium and aid schools. Months later, a 1/4-cent sales tax was rejected; it would have created the Birmingham Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Didn't convey vision:

"We did a very poor job conveying the vision of MAPS," said Hallman, who was involved in the MAPS campaign.

For Jacksonville, a defining moment came in 2000, when then-Mayor John Delaney saw voters pass his Better Jacksonville Plan with 57 percent approval. The 30-year, 1/2-cent county sales tax included 19 major projects to prepare for the city's long-term growth.

Delaney sold it after first asking voters for suggestions, then drafting the plan with something for everybody. He then spent weeks explaining the details and benefits before it went to the ballot.

"The city is growing a lot," said Marie Nelson, a resident since 1989. "It's a great place to raise a family."

Birmingham has the same potential, leaders say. It comes down to a matter of when leaders will come together and take the plunge on a few major improvements for the next tier of growth.

"I think we can look at Jacksonville's experience and see that if you take some bold steps, you can achieve things to take your city to the next level," Hallman said.

Birmingham can change its fate at any time, but every year the city puts off major project decisions, the farther it falls behind other cities its size competing for convention, tourist and residential dollars, says one chamber of commerce leader.

Not out of reach:

"I do not think dramatic moves are beyond our reach; they are very much within reach," said David Adkisson, CEO of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Birmingham does not have a single fate that is cast in stone."

But first, government and business leaders have to build more trust, work together and convey the benefits of their visions to the voters. That would redefine the Birmingham area, Adkisson said, and improve the entire city's self-image.

Adkisson says if a few major projects were approved this year, such as a dome and a mass transit system, major momentum would erupt and boost the civic pride that spurs great cities.

"If certain pieces fell in place within 90 days," Adkisson said, "this area would be on fire."

Jacksonville is already feeling the benefits of the fire.

As residents, businesses and industries continue to flock to Florida, spillover from the southern part of the state is affecting its mid-sized cities, too.

Jacksonville's beaches, cheaper housing, down-home hospitality and climate make it a ready destination spot for south Floridians who want more for their money, and the four seasons south Florida lacks.

Delaney's Better Jacksonville Plan has helped the area prepare for that growth in a big way.

"I think the first part of the 21st Century is Jacksonville's time," said Rummell, the Florida real estate development CEO. "Our opportunity is going to knock, big time."

E-mail: [email protected]

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