The Brooklyn Bridge- Northeast- Feb. 2003
Jacksonville's Brooklyn has long been one of the city's most neglected neighborhoods, but the ambitious plans of a local law firm could help improve the area's fortunes.
Marks Gray, P.A., one of Jacksonville's oldest and few remaining independent law firms, is finalizing plans for a 60,000-sq.-ft. office complex in Brooklyn. The 22-member firm will occupy the top floor of the three-story structure, leasing second-floor office space and reserving the ground floor for parking and, partners hope, future retail.
That anyone would consider Brooklyn a future shopping destination testifies to no shortage of optimism. The neighborhood, however, does have considerable potential. Sandwiched between the Prime Osborn Convention Center and Riverside's funky Five Points retail district, Brooklyn is a natural link between the city's gentrified southwest suburbs and an improving downtown.
With I-95 and busy Riverside Avenue encircling the neighborhood, Brooklyn has remained largely isolated and neglected, but city leaders insist that's about to change. The Downtown Development Authority has made revitalizing Brooklyn a priority, and construction of the Marks Gray headquarters is viewed as a signature event. Building should coincide with two other projects important to the area: The widening and redevelopment of Riverside Avenue and completion of a pedestrian walkway along the St. Johns River.
"The firm's stature and history sends a message to other developers that our efforts will be successful," says Al Battle, managing director of the development authority.
The city is helping Marks Gray defray the cost of construction with a $210,000 property tax rebate.
Marks Gray President Jerry Weedon admits the move is a departure for a firm that has valued its downtown roots. It has spent the last 15 years in a high-rise overlooking the St. Johns River. Weedon says the firm's partners wanted to own their space and maintain a view of the river. With real estate prices escalating downtown, Brooklyn emerged as an affordable alternative.
Weedon says the move also fits the firm's mission of "community involvement," a point that was driven home when he walked the streets around Marks Gray's future home several months ago.
"We were involved in a neighborhood cleanup and, frankly, I was shocked at what I saw," says Weedon. "It was some of the worst poverty I had ever seen in Jacksonville. I had no idea."
IN THE NEWS
Clay County -- Kellie Jo Kilberg has been named executive director of a new economic development alliance that includes the Clay County Development Authority, the Clay County Economic Development Council and the Clay County Chamber of Commerce. Kilberg replaces Orien Pass, who retired in January after 13 years as the county's leading business official.
Columbia County -- The school board unanimously rejected a retired teacher's proposal to start the county's first charter school. Matthew Philipose claimed his Stardust Middle Charter School would recruit students currently home-schooled and focus on a curriculum of arts, science, math and reading; Columbia County Superintendent Michael Flanagan said the application was poorly written and failed to explain how the charter school would help local children.
Gainesville -- The Alliance for Economic Development, formed in 1988 to coordinate the region's business initiatives, was disbanded after officials from its three member organizations, the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Council for Economic Outreach and the Technology Enterprise Center of Gainesville/Alachua County, decided the alliance's role was confusing potential investors. The three groups have pledged to continue working together.
Jacksonville -- The Vestcor Cos. has sold its property management arm, Vestcor Realty Management, to one of its own. Cynthia Lucas, senior vice president of Vestcor Realty Management, assumes contracts for 33 apartment communities and will operate under the name CALEX Realty Group.
Humana is closing its downtown service center and laying off 450, part of a national job-cutting effort. The HMO has been awarded $9 million in tax incentives and rebates since moving to the city in 1998, some of which it may have to repay.
Baptist Medical Center received city approval for a $55-million expansion that includes a larger emergency department, a new clinical services building and a six-level garage. Baptist already owns 1.16 million square feet of medical space and two garages on the city's Southbank.
St. Augustine Beach -- Jacksonville developer James N. McGarvey Jr. has purchased the former Cooksey's Campground site from The Collins Group for $7.15 million. Last July, the 116-acre property along the Intracoastal Waterway won controversial approval for a 325-home development that includes five acres of commercial space.
St. Johns County -- The prospect of an incentives package of tax breaks and fast-track permits has persuaded The American Culinary Federation to remain in St. Johns County. Although details have yet to be worked out, the association is expected to move from St. Augustine to a 10,000-sq.-ft. building on 1.6 acres in World Golf Village.
According to University of Florida researchers, some 6.2 million tourists visited St. Augustine and St. Johns County in the past year, doubling the previous estimates of local tourism officials. The visitors added about $1.5 billion to the local economy.
A BLOW FROM TYSON
BRADFORD COUNTY -- Tyson Food's decision to close its Jacksonville chicken plant means financial hardship for a number of local farmers. Tyson sent letters to 20 Bradford County contractors saying it will no longer supply chicks the farmers raise into breeder chickens. The breeders eventually produce broiler chickens that line grocery shelves. The Bradford farms have a combined 67 chicken houses that produce 6.5 million chickens annually. Tyson's Jacksonville poultry operation employs 550 and includes a hatchery, feed mill, live production and processing facility.