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Doing Things Now:

NEW JAX: The Jacksonville city council and mayor are behind the revitalization plans of downtown, including more pedestrian-friendly walkways and a new Justice Department. Courtesy photo top; above by Joseyln McDonald

“Where’s downtown?” new resident Rachel Vences asked of Jacksonville when she heard about where the new organic market opening. I couldn’t help but laugh. Being born and raised in Jacksonville (yes, a few of us exist) means I frequented downtown on school field trips once a year. I experienced the internal euphoria as I feasted my eyes on the verdant New River. I also experienced the soul-crushing realization that the New River was polluted.

Many native residents of Jacksonville find downtown a bit of a sore spot, as they remember the days when it was a thriving district with shops, restaurants and bars. For decades the district encompassing the train depot, courthouse and City Hall has been limping along like a sad, raggedy dog, with one eye, two teeth and a bad tattoo of a hula dancer.

The Justice Department has recently been given a makeover, and two new businesses (New Bridge Organic Market and Bicycle Gallery) have established themselves along New Bridge Street. The question that lingers, though: Are these just minor improvements, or is there a real plan for downtown revitalization?

“The county council and the state are leading a major effort to revitalize,” City Manager Dr. Richard Woodruff says. He enumerates the forthcoming projects to downtown, all-the-while stressing, “These are all things that are real—this is no longer verbiage.” Among the projects: the Gateway Park/Freedom Fountain.

“It will be the entrance to downtown,” Dr. Woodruff says. “Phase I is a $600,000 Freedom Fountain with a 50-foot basin (to represent the 50 states) to the east of City Hall.  It doesn’t represent a war; it’s a fountain that simply says we’re proud to be Americans. Every component of the fountain is a component that speaks about our nation—the basin itself is designed with a seemless edge to illustrate that freedom never ends.”

Tree removal on the site has begun, and according to Dr. Woodruff, construction will begin the Tuesday after Labor Day (as in yesterday, if judged by the first edition date on the cover of this encore). Phase II includes a flag garden connecting the Beirut Memorial to downtown. A backdrop for the fountain will include five statues representing the five branches of the armed services.

As is, the four blocks adjacent to City Hall are unworthy of such a grand “Gateway” addition, but the mayor and city council are working on that as well. In September, the city will be holding meetings with downtown business and property owners to discuss the options for a New Bridge Street beautification project. Currently, there are two concepts for creating a safer, more attractive downtown.

As it stands, a pedestrian must navigate onstreet diagonal parking, four lanes of traffic, and then more diagonal parking to cross New Bridge—which equals 68 feet of unprotected street crossing. The city council is offering residents the opportunity to evaluate the two options for improvement: Both plans increase safety by reducing traffic to two lanes and add significant vegetation. However, the first plan would add a central lush median, while the other would expand the current sidewalk and add landscaping as well. As for which is best, Dr. Woodruff admits, “From a beautification standpoint either one will have its draws. They’re both ‘A’ projects. It depends on what the public, specifically the businesses think. What’s important is that we’re doing something.”

The project will begin with one focused block in January of 2012.“Hopefully what you would see this time next year would be a central median or a central road with extended landscaping on all four blocks,” Woodruff notes.

The development sounds promising, but Jacksonville’s council has a rep for promising things they can’t deliver (ahem: conference center). These projects need a determined force pushing them.

“As long as there is a political will, it can happen,” Woodruff states. “Downtown revitalization only occurs with the leadership of the elected officials, and, fortunately, we have a mayor and city council that are very progressive. They want to see good downtown development, and they want to see city-wide progress.”

In fact, an interesting housing improvement plan has already begun next to the train depot on Court Street. The city recently launched a private-public partnership that aims to develop decrepit lots by buying the property, building a house and selling it. The land would be considered a second mortgage; the house would be a first mortgage. After 10 years of living on the property continuously, the city would forgive the second mortgage. The completed houses are so spectacular that for the first time in Jacksonville’s history people will say, “I want to live on Court Street.”

The police and fire department will be getting a brand new building to replace their 50-year-old current digs. As to avoid full-blown panic, a warning must be issued: The Highway 17 Bojangles, located just before the bridge, will be torn down to build the new police and fire stations. However, a new Bojangles will be built down the road (with brand-new spork receptacles, I am assured).

The current city council wants people to want to come downtown. They’ve been actively researching how to best get visitors from the southern entrance of town (where Court Street breaks from 17, at the Exxon station). They’ve been focusing on beautifying the area around and between the two bridges.

To see the redeveloped downtown and its promising updates, whether we have to wait 5 or 10 years is out of the question, according to Dr. Woodruff. “Listen, at my age I don’t do things five years out. I do them now. This is a doing mayor and city council.”

Visit www.ci.jacksonville.nc.us for more information and details about the beautification projects underway.

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