Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza
Imagine a park in a city’s downtown that covers one square block.
It’s so well regarded that it’s known as the “city’s living room.”
There are more than 300 programmed events in the park every year.
For some events, as many as 25,000 people come to the park.
There are water fountains and public restrooms.
The park is not only used by the city’s residents. It also attracts thousands of tourists.
Imagine a park that has been described this way:
“All week long people of all ages and walks of life enjoy the [park’s] features, which are equally diverse: chessboards built into stone columns, a collection of public art, food carts and even a flower stand.”
Such a park exists.
It’s Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, and it’s a park we should be looking at as the city moves forward with plans to restore Hemming Plaza as a central part of our downtown.
How did Portland pull it off? With innovative thinking and the recognition that a high quality of life costs money.
Before the opening of the square in 1984, $750,000 was raised by selling pavers etched with the donors’ names.
A nonprofit was set up to manage the events and to oversee maintenance, security and promotion of the park.
Operations are funded by rents from tenants in the park: a bookstore, a coffee shop, food and flower carts.
And the city kicks in $1.2 million a year to cover the cost of security and landscape maintenance.
That last item is likely to be a stumbling block for success at Hemming Plaza. It shouldn’t be.
A City Council ad hoc committee has been looking for ways to turn our downtown park into a place people want to visit instead of avoid.
Last week, the committee agreed the city should solicit proposals from people or groups interested in managing the park.
The committee also agreed that the keys to turning Hemming Plaza around will be programming regular events that attract people to the park, providing sufficient security so park visitors feel safe and keeping the park clean and user friendly.
That sounds a lot like the ingredients used in Portland’s success with Pioneer Courthouse Square.
But success comes with a price tag; in Portland’s case, $1.2 million a year from the city’s general fund.
Remaking Hemming Plaza will require an investment of taxpayer dollars as well.
Why spend the money?
Hemming Plaza is not Jacksonville’s “living room.”
It’s the front door to City Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Main Library, the federal courthouse, the Skyway.
It’s also the key to revitalizing downtown, a top priority for Mayor Alvin Brown and a major part of the platform he campaigned on.
I realize some argue that will never happen, but it will if Jacksonville is innovative, bold and forward thinking.
Cities like Portland are. There’s no reason Jacksonville can’t be.
Read the full article here.