Mark R. Howard
Expectations in Jacksonville
When Tim Cost became president of Jacksonville University in 2013, he began asking questions that seemed obvious. Why were there so many bare patches on campus lawns where grass should have been growing? Why was there no representation of a dolphin — the school’s mascot — in any prominent place? Why didn’t more JU facilities and programs take advantage of the school’s striking riverfront location?
Cost, 57, is a JU grad — he was a pitcher on the school’s baseball team — who had gone on to a corporate career that included top executive positions at Wyeth, Aramark and Pepsi. He was serving on JU’s board when it asked him to become president.
Along with asking the right questions, Cost has other skills a leader needs to raise an organization’s expectations of itself. A sense of urgency, for example. And the ability to develop resources to spend on improvements — while enlisting stakeholders who may have shrugged at the previous state of affairs.
Less than four years into his tenure, JU’s lawns are green and full. A statue of three dolphins sits in a central spot. Corporate partners are funding a raft of improvements to both academic and athletic programs. There are new dorms and new investments in key curricula — health sciences, marine sciences, the business school. The riverfront now figures prominently in the school’s programs and activities. And the school is actively engaged in an effort to improve its Arlington neighborhood, where I grew up a generation ago.
Cost and JU may be emblematic of trends in Jacksonville more generally these days. The city, often inclined to shrug at obvious shortcomings rather than address them, appears to be serious about raising its expectations of itself.
In many ways, the city is blooming. Jobs are flowing from corporate expansions and relocations. There’s a cohesive cadre of engaged business leaders. Shad Khan, the billionaire owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, is proving to be the kind of economic development game-changer the city hoped for when he bought the Jags.
Jacksonville is cementing its identity as a medical destination. Expansions at the Mayo Clinic include a Lung Restoration Center that can “heal” lungs donated for transplant, which often must be discarded because they’re too fragile. Baptist Health, the city’s biggest employer, is partnering with Houston’s MD Anderson to build an Anderson-branded cancer center to serve the region. Baptist also has partnered with two health systems in south Georgia that will save the new group millions and funnel patients from across the region into Baptist.
Meanwhile, JaxPort has added an intermodal center, renovated its berths and diversified its traffic — 30% of the goods the port handles now are part of Asia-Pacific trade, compared to almost nothing from that region five years ago.
Elsewhere, several once-stagnant neighborhoods near downtown now feature lively centers with shops and restaurants. An annual crowdfunding festival, One Spark, has become a magnet for millennial entrepreneurs. Developer Peter Rummell expects to break ground soon on a health-themed residential community on the south bank of the St. Johns.
As well as things are going, however, the city still has some bare spots in its civic lawn. The core downtown area, in a premier location along the St. Johns, remains an embarrassment. Likewise, the racial divide that’s ingrained in the city’s history and psychology.
The opportunity to take a whack at both those issues is at hand, as new Mayor Lenny Curry tackles the city’s most immediate financial problem, a $2-billion-plus unfunded pension liability.
Aggressive and determined, Curry and his team have a smart plan. The former head of the state GOP, Curry used his connections and political capital to get the Legislature to allow the city to reorganize the pension system using the proceeds of an existing local-option half-cent sales tax — if voters approve extending the tax past its current expiration date.
Revamping the pension system should ensure financial stability for the system and will free up millions of dollars in annual operating revenue that the city can use to good effect.
Curry first must mount an effective campaign to get voters behind his solution to the pension mess. Then he has to deploy the newly available funds smartly. Downtown is, of course, a main priority, but Curry also needs to send a strong signal to the city’s African-American community (30% of the population) that they share in the city’s rising tide.
It’s not impossible. In St. Petersburg, former Mayor Rick Baker, a Republican, focused on the city’s downtown while making it clear with both time and money that the fortunes of Midtown — a poor, heavily African-American section south of downtown — were important as well. Baker got nearly 80% of the black vote in his two mayoral campaigns.
It will be interesting to see whether Curry, who’s used to operating in a more partisan way, can become that kind of bridge-building leader. The city is asking the right questions about itself these days. The question is whether Curry and the city’s business community can take full advantage of a singular opportunity to begin filling in those bare patches.