by Jane Tanner
Updated 5 yearss ago
An Episcopal priest and a lawyer have built an ecumenical group that's helping to redevelop Jacksonville's old inner city.
Developer Toney Sleiman is better known in Jacksonville for retail strip malls than philanthropy. But two years ago, a minister associated with a group called Fresh Ministries took him to the northwest area of downtown to look at potential retail spots -- and to try to change his perspective on the inner city. Sleiman had grown up in the area, but had never looked back after leaving, along with a major portion of the white population, in the 1960s.
Sleiman saw strong market potential at an abandoned sludge storage site in a poor neighborhood. Subsequently, on the corner of Soutel Drive and Moncrief Road, he built a Walgreen's that opened in January 1998. Store officials in Illinois say revenues are ahead of projections. "People are finding these areas can be profitable," says Sleiman, who now sits on the board of Fresh Ministries. "I'm all over that area looking for sites."
Sleiman is just one of the players in Jacksonville's business arena that Fresh Ministries has converted to its way of thinking about the neglected neighborhoods that ring the city's downtown commercial center. Robert Lee, a businessman-turned-Episcopal priest, started Fresh Ministries while he was leading a church in the suburb of Mandarin. Now the group's chairman, Lee brought in Michael Bryant, an attorney and former real estate developer, to head Fresh Ministries' inner-city business development effort.
Since 1995, the group, which does no religious proselytizing, has put itself at the center of reclaiming inner-city neighborhoods, including the redevelopment of old industrial "brownfields" sites and other commercial projects in neglected neighborhoods. Fresh Ministries has created an endowment that generates enough to finance 65% of a $1-million annual budget for inner-city redevelopment, missionary pilgrimages abroad and worldwide emergency relief. The ministries' efforts have attracted fans that include Mayor John Delaney, power broker Tom Petway and Delores Weaver, an active social cause volunteer and wife of Wayne Weaver, an owner of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.
The group's biggest accomplishment so far may simply be getting mainstream economic groups to include neglected portions of the city's original core in their thinking. The JEA (Jacksonville Electric Authority) and the local chamber of commerce, for example, commissioned a much-touted study of the area's business assets that Bryant felt ignored the city's core. Bryant pushed for a second study to focus on the inner city and got the chamber, the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and a city brownfields program to help pay for it. "If you are using public dollars to help economic development, what justification is there unless it's helping parts of the community that aren't growing naturally?" Bryant asks.
Fresh Ministries is developing a demonstration project, likely a small manufacturing outfit, to show what can be done. The organization also is overseeing the renovation of a crumbling 1913 historic building at 1830 Main Street designed by well-known architect Henry Klutho, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Fresh Ministries pushed the city to commit to a facelift of the entire block of Main Street, once a thriving downtown corridor, now rife with pawn shops and boarded-up buildings.
Hearing business development labeled a "spiritual issue" that should address "economic justice" comes as a shock to some people who attend economic development meetings in the city. But the union of faith and commerce doesn't phase Lee. "Maybe we are strange bedfellows," says Lee, "but good bedfellows."
In The News...
FERNANDINA BEACH -- First National Bank of Nassau County opened for business this summer. One million shares in the community bank quickly sold this spring, generating $10 million.
FLAGLER COUNTY -- Most of the property surrounding the Marineland oceanarium will be set aside. The state paid $8.25 million for 97 acres, including a stretch on the ocean, that it will deed to the county and the city of Marineland for parks. The local University of Florida marine laboratory and a private Atlanta developer picked up smaller parcels. The recently reopened non-profit Marineland attraction was not part of the deal.
GAINESVILLE -- Facing flat revenues, University of Florida's athletic program is looking skyward for manna. The UF Athletic Association is considering 20 additional football stadium skyboxes. The current 49 suites generate $20,000 to $30,000 each per season. The number of club seats also may double to 4,000. Club seats now generate about $2 million a year since an annual $1,000 booster club contribution is required on top of ticket costs. The $30-million project, if initiated would begin after the 2000 football season.
Retired Jacksonville surgeon Curtis Manning Phillips agreed to deed his Jacksonville horse farm, appraised at $2.5 million, to UF. The university will sell the farm and put the proceeds into its center for the performing arts, which it will name for Phillips.
JACKSONVILLE -- Area heavy hitters made a pitch this spring to National Football League officials to host the 2005 Super Bowl. They hope to get invited back in October for a second chance to hype the city. St. Joe Co. Chairman Peter Rummell joined Tom Petway, a minority owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a former Jacksonville Economic Development Commission chairman, in the first appeal. One hitch: The NFL requires 17,500 first-class hotel rooms within 60 minutes of the stadium. Jacksonville at this point is shy 3,000.
A Duke Energy Corp. real estate subsidiary is making its first foray into Florida residential property developments in an alliance with Jacksonville's LandMar Group. Duke subsidiary Crescent Resources is providing an undisclosed amount of financing for three LandMar communities under way in Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties. Duke's real estate arm already has commercial development ventures in the state, but this marks its first residential project.
A campaign to draw manufacturers to the city's west side is getting takers. A group of local investors created PolyCorr Container to make plastic dairy and industrial bottles to be sold throughout the Southeast. Separately, Stringer Tire Co. is spending $4 million to renovate an old tire operation into a Michelin Retread Technologies franchise.
Spelling Entertainment Inc. plans to film 13 episodes of a new television series here starting this summer. "Safe Harbor," a drama about a widowed sheriff in the fictional town of Magic Beach, is set to air this fall, promising a multimillion-dollar local impact.
Mayo Clinic Jacksonville continues to expand. The latest project is a $33-million women's services center on its San Pablo campus to be completed fall 2000.
MARION COUNTY -- The giant developer-created town The Villages, which has 10,378 homes in Lake and Sumter counties, is spreading into Marion County with 5,000 new homes and half-a-million square feet of commercial and office space. If permitting goes without a hitch, the first home should go up in 2001, the last in 2011.
This year, Lockheed Martin has eliminated 150 workers from its two Ocala electronics and missile plants as international orders lagged. The manufacturer expects to retain its current 700 workers, but will forgo about $350,000 in incentives, the last portion of a $2.5-million, five-year incentive agreement with the city, since the size of its local workforce has dropped below a mandated level.
PALATKA -- Local officials want to spark new development along the St. Johns River. The city hopes to shift residents from an aging 100-unit public housing apartment building on the river to a new site, then sell two waterfront blocks to a private developer for a marina, condos or other development.
SUWANNEE COUNTY -- The head of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection nixed plans for a cement plant near the Ichetucknee River. DEP chief David Struhs cited a track record of pollution violations by principals in the Suwannee American Cement Co. The firm vows a court battle.
Ever wonder what mayors do when they leave office? In Jacksonville these days it seems they land on the Jacksonville Port Authority. Two years ago, Mayor John Delaney appointed his immediate predecessor and former boss, Ed Austin, to a four-year term on the authority that oversees the city's seaports and three airports, including Jacksonville International. Now Delaney, a Republican, plans to tap former Mayor Tommy Hazouri, a Democrat who supported Delaney in 1995 and has been a lobbyist for the city in Tallahassee. But first Delaney is expected to name Fred Franklin, an attorney and former City Hall general counsel, to replace Chester Aikens, a Jacksonville dentist whose term expires Sept. 30.