January 16, 2021

Sports Business

Game Time

Will Super Bowl XXXIX give Jacksonville the boost it wants in its climb to become a "first-tier" city?

Rob Johnson | 12/1/2004
Three-inch-tall red numbers on a digital clock in Michael Kelly's lobby are counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the event that city leaders hope will finally, once and for all, conclusively and forever validate Jacksonville as a big-time city.
That event, of course, is Super Bowl XXXIX, with Jacksonville only the 12th metropolis to host pro football's biggest game. "This will be a great opportunity to show off Jacksonville: Big parties, the biggest television audience in all sports and a huge step into the elite company of cities that can handle a major event of this sort," says Kelly, president of the Super Bowl Host Committee.

The 34-year-old Kelly, who was Tampa's hired point man for Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, is running in dozens of directions at once: His 17-person staff and $12-million budget -- spread over three years of preparation -- have helped to mobilize no less than 61 subcommittees bustling with about 10,000 volunteers. In October, with 122 days, 4 hours, 31 minutes and 57.5 seconds to go before the Feb. 6 kickoff, Kelly was still recruiting volunteers for Feb. 7.

At stake for Jacksonville is an economic impact for the Super Bowl host city that has roughly doubled to more than $330 million in the last 10 years, according to Craig Depken, an economist at the University of Texas at Arlington. That figure includes direct spending by out-of-towners on everything from taxis to fitting in a round of golf or a trip to Jacksonville Zoo. The staggering total impact also captures the so-called multiplier effect -- dollars spent by visitors on local goods and services are re-spent by business owners and employees, leading to additional rounds of spending.

City leaders are realistic about just how much immediate economic benefit Jacksonville will garner. "The CEO of Pepsico isn't going to move his headquarters here just because we have the Super Bowl," cautions Kirk Wendland, executive director of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission. But Wendland and others are counting on an intangible, longer-term impact. "We feel we're progressing to the status of a first-tier city. The Super Bowl helps us get our name out there more," he says.

Perhaps more than any other location for the Super Bowl, Jacksonville needs a stick-in-the-memory identity.

The city boasts first-rate beaches, livable neighborhoods and a progressive metro-government structure that has served it well. Its emergence as a first-rate business center has been well-documented, and landing the NFL Jaguars in 1993 helped give the city a face to show the nation. The striking riverfront downtown is slowly emerging as a place to live and play as well as work.

Still, the brand is a little thin. Jacksonville has long been bypassed by theme parks in favor of Orlando, by nightlife entrepreneurs who flocked to Miami's South Beach and by retirees who selected St. Petersburg and other havens for their golden years. Locals joked for years about Jacksonville being more "south Georgia" than "north Florida."

Today, despite a population of more than 1 million in a five-county area and a consistent drumbeat of positive notices, the city is still a bit like a metropolitan version of "Mr. Cellophane," the character in the musical hit Chicago who sang plaintively of forever being unnoticed.

Consider: In the gift shop of the Adam's Mark Hotel, which has been designated as the city's Super Bowl headquarters lodging for NFL and media staff, only four of 40 postcards displayed picture Jacksonville; the rest are generic scenes of beaches, palm trees and alligators that could be anywhere from here to the Keys. A rack of souvenir key chains has dozens of first names to choose but only one design: A jumping porpoise and the word "Florida." They could well be keepsakes from a Miami Dolphins game.

"When people think of Jacksonville they aren't sure where it is or what it does," says Bobbi Reid-Doggett, a mass communications instructor at the University of North Florida near downtown.

Working out the kinks
The Super Bowl may well help -- if Jacksonville can pull off all the logistics. A $40-million renovation of the 83,000-seat Alltel Stadium that the city completed last year includes the sprawling Bud Zone sports bar and a state-of-the-art audio/visual system. The city also has spent millions sprucing up its neighborhoods and has fixed traffic bottlenecks "all over the place," says Paul Mason, chairman of the economics department at the University of North Florida. "Our infrastructure is a winner," he says. "Projects like a new minor-league baseball stadium that might have lagged got done in order to show Jacksonville at its best."

Other plans haven't firmed up quite as well, however. Workers are racing to finish the widening of Butler Highway, which connects downtown with Jacksonville Beach, by the end of the year, and the city's new main library is incomplete too -- both in part because of the tumultuous recent hurricane season. "We were hoping to have some parties at the new library, but they had to take down the scaffolding during the storms and that really slowed the work," says Jean Moyer, a spokesman for the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission.

And although Super Bowl expectations encouraged some hotel building and renovation, the city still falls 3,000 rooms short of the 17,500 high-quality units required by the National Football League. Arrangements have been made for at least five cruise ships with a total of 3,600 rooms to dock along the river during Super Bowl week. The plan is ambitious, but the logistics will prove daunting: Organizers will have to arrange shuttle transportation between the various dock sites to downtown and the stadium and have to provide enough security to keep passengers safe without creating delays for the fans getting on and off the ships.

Reid-Doggett and others think Jacksonville will do fine playing to its strengths. "We aren't a New Orleans, a Miami or Tampa Bay. We don't have the strip clubs and the casinos," she says, but adds that "America may be getting tired of tawdry and look at Jacksonville as a solid family city of the kind that a lot of people are nostalgic for."

Around town, the mood is up, with anticipation rising at the likes of Morton's Steakhouse of Jacksonville, where manager Luis Garcia is stocking up on aged steaks and pricey vintage wines. Garcia says he's getting reservations for large groups of well-heeled corporate types several nights in advance of the Super Bowl. "This will be a week of parties," he says.

Back in Kelly's office, workers scramble to find even more volunteers. "The morning after the game we'll need people at the airport to say goodbye to media and other visitors who are taking flights home," he says. That volunteer "shift" starts at 5 a.m., and it's decidedly the least-popular task associated with making this occasion a success. By then, the excitement of Super Bowl XXXIX will be just a memory, but even that must be planned for.

Tags: Dining & Travel, Northeast

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