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Northside Story

To the casual observer, the modest strip mall at Moncrief Road and U.S. 1 resembles the hundreds of retail plazas that crowd the Jacksonville landscape.

To residents of the city's struggling Northside, however, the recently opened 24,000-sq.-ft. complex is nothing short of revolutionary. Fully leased and home to a Family Dollar store, Subway sandwich shop, shoe store, a family-style restaurant and beauty supply store, Moncrief Plaza is the first new retail center this traditionally African-American neighborhood has seen in years. It isn't, however, the only sign of retail activity in the impoverished area.

Retail is rediscovering Jacksonville's Northside. Developers have announced plans for several projects in an area that has been in economic decline for decades. Edward Waters College is trying to secure funding for a retail/residential complex near its Kings Road campus, while Rev. James B. Sampson and partners have proposed a $30-million retail/office complex at I-95 and Clark Road. Farther north, developers of a shopping center near Jacksonville International Airport recently announced Wal-Mart as its anchor.

"Every time I walk by (Moncrief Plaza) I smile," says Mollie Sims, a 40-year neighborhood resident. "Contrary to what people say, there are folks here with money to spend."

Many credit developer Carleton Jones for blazing a retail trail that others have followed. In the late 1990s, Jones and several investors turned the sprawling but largely abandoned Gateway Mall into a retail and social hub. By the time Jones convinced Publix to open a Gateway branch, the mall was already bustling with an eclectic mix of home-grown shops and boutiques. In City Hall and bank boardrooms, Gateway is often cited as proof that inner-city commercial development can be profitable.

The $2.6-million Moncrief Plaza is the brainchild of Tony Nelson and the 8-year-old Urban Core Enterprises, a non-profit affiliate of First Coast Black Business Investment Corp. BBIC offers loans and management assistance to African-American-owned businesses.

Nelson says Moncrief Plaza demonstrates Urban Core's mission of revitalizing urban neighborhoods through retail and residential development.

Urban Core's next project is a 98-unit apartment building on Soutel Drive, to be called Christine Cove Villas. The group has teamed with The Carlyle Group to secure financing for the $6-million project.

If Urban Core's projects prove successful, Nelson hopes to partner with Carlyle and others to bring their Northside story to other inner-city neighborhoods across the state.