In the late summer of 2000, then-Mayor John Delaney’s Better Jacksonville Plan was approved by Duval County voters.
The plan called for a half-penny sales tax to extend no longer than the year 2030 in order to fund major city projects. Those projects included improvements to the downtown library, environmental improvements, $1.5 billion worth of road construction, resurfacing of existing roads, development of a jaguar exhibit at the zoo, and the construction of a new arena and baseball park.
It also included the construction of a new downtown courthouse, which has become the most infamous aspect of the plan due to its many construction delays.
Almost 16 years after the Better Jacksonville Plan was voted into action, we take a look at each major part of it to see how effective it’s been thus far.
The road construction projects that have been and continue to be completed through the Better Jacksonville Plan have been pretty effective in cutting down on traffic jams. Traffic will only continue to improve with the completion of major projects such as the I-95/JTB interchange and the I-95 overland bridge project. The only issue is how long these projects tend to drag on, and the traffic woes they cause during construction.
There are still a lot of projects yet to be completed. Many of the road construction projects still pending, such as the Old Baymeadows/Baymeadows intersection pictured above, would be a huge help in cutting down on rush hour traffic jams. The projects will presumably be finished eventually, as funding becomes available. Delays were largely caused by revenue from the plan’s sales tax dropping during the recession.
Assuming the remaining projects secure funding and come to fruition, the large investment in our infrastructure (and the traffic headaches) will prove to be worthwhile for our future.
Arena and Baseball Park
The Better Jacksonville Plan called for the construction of a new arena to replace Jacksonville Coliseum, and a new baseball park to replace Wolfson Park. Both venues were aging and struggling to draw crowds.
A new arena, it was hoped, would allow for a more exciting concert lineup as well as an outside chance at consideration for a second major professional sports team. A new baseball park would entice major league teams to relocate their spring training activities to Jacksonville.
The Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena was completed in 2003. So far, the venue has proven successful at attracting events, with the U.S. men’s basketball team holding a well-attended exhibition game there in 2004 and a collection of NCAA men’s basketball tournament games being played there three years out of the past decade.
It also hosts the AFL’s Jacksonville Sharks and the ABA’s Jacksonville Giants; it also briefly hosted the AHL’s Barracudas before their demise. It has yet to attract that second major league team to the city, however, and given that the arena is now over a decade old it probably never will.
The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville opened in 2003, becoming one of the nicest minor-league baseball parks you’ll ever see. The park, like the arena, has been successful at attracting events to the city, such as important college baseball games. Additionally, it now hosts both minor league baseball’s Jacksonville Suns and the NASL’s Armada FC. Providing a home to the Armada, with its passionate fanbase and arsenal of potential, makes it an extremely valuable venue.
Combined, the projects were a $164 million investment. Given the number of events that both venues are able to secure, as well as the potential for growth in the sports district, it seems like a worthwhile investment.
The plan featured the improvement of neighborhood parks across the city, as well as economic measures to improve the city’s environmental output. The environmental investment totaled $165 million, slightly more than the arena and baseball park combined. Almost half of that went to installing sewer lines throughout the city. It was nothing exciting, but it was necessary for the city’s sustainability.
Even Hemming Park, an area long plagued by development false-alarms, is finally thriving as a marketplace, food truck parking spot, and gathering area.
$60 million of the plan’s funds went to “targeted economic development”, which consisted of infrastructure investments to support business in northwest Jacksonville ($25 mil.), funding for Cecil Commerce Center ($25 mil.), and a new “Range of the Jaguar” exhibit at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
The funding given to Cecil Commerce Center was used to create the Cecil Recreation Complex. The complex is a massive sports and recreation campus that includes a $5.7 million aquatics center and the Jacksonville Equestrian Center. It helps the city to appeal to an important niche and provides a fantastic recreation facility to the westside.
The funding for northwest Jacksonville business went to the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Trust Fund. It began to slow to a trickle when the recession hit, which left around $4 million of the promised funding unfulfilled as recently as last year. The money that did get invested produced mixed returns – some businesses and developments thrived, but several others failed. The overall net result doesn’t seem to be worth $20-21 million.
The Zoo and Gardens’ “Range of the Jaguar” exhibit has been a big hit, twice winning national awards. The zoo has six jaguars, including one named after Shad Khan, because why not?
This category is probably the weakest as far as contributing to the city’s future. But hey, having six jaguars in the home of the Jaguars is still pretty cool.
The Duval County Courthouse was, in theory, supposed to be the crowning accomplishment of the Better Jacksonville Plan. The old courthouse was becoming too small and outdated, so it was decided that an entirely new building would be constructed.
That new building would enter development hell almost immediately, with John Peyton taking over as mayor in 2003 and soon firing the original construction company. By that point, $64 million of prep work had already been completed.
An entirely new plan was created, and estimated to cost $70 million more than the original one. One company was awarded the contract, but then found to be in financial trouble. Finally, a team backed by KBJ Architects was approved in 2007. The total approved budget was $350 million, which is $139 million more than the original Better Jacksonville Plan budget.
Construction finally began in 2009, and didn’t finish until 2012.
The building itself looks great. It also looks a bit out of place, mostly due to its massive size. And after needing $139 million in additional funding to make it a reality, it’s hard to say it was really worth it.
It’s hard to ignore the shortcomings of the investment strategy for northwest Jacksonville business. It’s much harder to ignore the Courthouse fiasco.
That being said, the Better Jacksonville Plan provided funding and a spark of energy for a lot of projects that desperately needed to be completed. Thanks to the plan, our infrastructure is significantly improved and our sports district is on its way to being an activity hub.
Overall, despite its shortcomings, the Better Jacksonville Plan has at least moved us along the path toward truly creating a better Jacksonville.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know! Hit us up in the comments below, or on Twitter (@coastaljax).