Rejuvenating Anemic Downtowns like Jacksonville, FL – IBM Smarter Cities Help

by Tonya Weathersbee, Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

Maybe this will be the downtown study that ends all downtown studies.

During a recent brunch at the Main Library, Mayor Alvin Brown announced that IBM had chosen Jacksonville as one of eight cities nationally and 33 globally to receive one of its Smarter Cities Challenge grants — a $50 million, three-year project in which a team of experts from IBM will suggest ways to rejuvenate anemic downtowns.

Downtown Jacksonville, Florida

An aerial view of downtown Jacksonville, FL










A few activities

It remains a challenge today as groups like Downtown Vision and others sponsor activities such as Wednesday Artwalk and Eat Up Downtown in hopes of giving people more reasons to hang out in the heart of the city rather than drive straight through it.

Still that heart struggles to beat steadily.

Yet Brown said he believes that this latest project, which carries a $400,000 value and costs the taxpayers zilch, could be the key to its comeback.

“I believe it will be a game-changer,” Brown told me. “IBM has a great name and a great brand, and they’re going to really use all their expertise to help us.

“They [IBM’s team of experts] have already moved to Jacksonville, and they’re already looking at ideas, long-term and short-term, and how they can be used holistically to revitalize downtown.”

Being selected for such a grant speaks to the potential of the city. One of the greatest assets of this team is its professionalism and its diversity. There’s an enterprise architect from Nigeria, a communications and media professional from Canada, a marketing expert from Japan, a research scientist from Israel and an attorney from Texas.

Many times, people who come from different backgrounds can add fresh perspectives toward solving old problems.

As I’ve stated in previous columns, reviving downtown is crucial not only because most real cities have real, 24-hour downtowns, but because it’s the key to reversing many of the social ills that many people say makes them avoid the central city.

Many people, for example, say they don’t like to come downtown because they don’t want to be confronted by panhandlers, yet if there were more business and activity downtown, some of the panhandlers would probably find little odd jobs and not worry people about giving them a dollar.

Others would probably go unnoticed amid the bustle of activity, unlike now where the absence of anything else makes them appear threatening.

A business stimulus

A thriving downtown, in fact, can also encourage entrepreneurialism in people who live in or near the area; people who have ideas, but who need a place to make them real that doesn’t require them to drive south of the St. Johns River.

It means creating places where people can be productive that help downtown as well as the entire city.

Countering the perception that downtown is a place where the presence of vagrants outstrips any other reason for being there will be tough.

It’ll be tough because over the years that perception has been abetted by urban sprawl.

In spite of its riverfront and all its other assets, too many people have decided that it’s easier to abandon downtown rather than fight for it.

Brown hopes to change that perception by making its revival a top priority.

That’s good.

Because if an outside company like IBM can look at all the gifts that Jacksonville’s downtown has to offer, and decide that it’s worth spending three years on a study, maybe people who actually live here will believe it’s time they give it a chance, as well.

In fact, it’s past time.


How’s the health of YOUR downtown?

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