A 90-minute Wednesday public notice meeting in the Jacksonville City Council offices addressed the perilous future of Friends of Hemming Park.
This tradition is almost as old as Jacksonville itself.
The nonprofit Friends of Hemming Park, designed to run the park, has enough funds to last until early August, after a $100,000 appropriation during a May meeting of the council.
Even though they got that money, council members expressed grave concerns about the near-term future of the park, located directly across from Jacksonville’s City Hall.
With money to tide them over for some weeks, the assembled representatives from Friends of Hemming Park, Downtown Vision, the Downtown Investment Authority, the Parks and Recreation Department, and the mayor’s office addressed some of the existential questions related to the park’s future.
Among them: What are the expectations for the park? Should it be passive or active? What defines success? How can Hemming Park be improved? At what level should Hemming Park be funded? And is the current management structure the right one for the park?
The goal of the meeting, said Council President Greg Anderson: to create a unified stakeholder vision for the park’s future.
“It’s important that we get this right,” said Anderson, who noted the history of the park and its parallels with Jacksonville history, including a 1977 resolution for redevelopment of Hemming Park.
As well, a resolution for portable toilets in Hemming Park in the 1980s was “killed,” Anderson said.
More currently, in 2o14, the city council appropriated a million dollars toward running the park … which puts it in its current position, even as the group mulls a second appropriation of $150,000 later this summer.
Friends of Hemming Park President Wayne Wood noted that “Hemming Park was a cesspool” three years ago, “overrun … by crime and so forth.”
The idea was activity would move the “ne’er do wells” to the periphery of the “family-friendly park.”
Noting that half of park visitors are female, Wood asserts their plan has paid off, in terms of the requirements of the request for proposal that brought the park under the purview of FOHP.
“We’ve been frugal. We’ve spent our money wisely … and yet, we’ve been beat up a little bit,” Wood said, adding that he’d like some positive words from the city council.
“Our goal is to be self-sustainable. Nobody imagined we could do that in a year and a half,” Wood said.
FOHP CEO Vince Cavin said, “I thought we were meeting the goals” of the RFP.
“You’ve just got to bring more people in, more people in. That’s what it takes,” Cavin added.
Wood pushed for a “commitment from the city” to validate the importance of the effort, noting that by the end of the five-year contractual term, the park could be self-sustaining.
Cavin, meanwhile, cited the need for “huge corporate support” for capital improvements to “update the park,” including food destinations.
“The event comes and goes, but the impact isn’t felt unless you’re there,” Cavin said.
The city takes care of a number of park functions, including daily cleanup, maintenance of the electrical fixtures, the electric bill itself, fountain maintenance, and tree canopy management, particularly when safety concerns are provided.
As well, two-man sheriff’s office patrols are out during business hours, with a bicycle cop on weekends.
“They are often in the park,” Wood said, but if called away they are not there.
Councilman John Crescimbeni pressed the FOHP, asking if adverse coverage from the press impacted fundraising.
“By the time we had something good to show for” their efforts, said Wood, “doubt was cast on whether or not we would continue.”
Cavin, meanwhile, said a fundraising effort from the Delores Barr Weaver Foundation was paused. And Wood said friends who planned to contribute were advised to hold off, given the uncertainty.
Jake Gordon of Downtown Vision said his group “needs the park to work,” and that “the definition of success” mattered.
Gordon expressed concerns about a panoply of issues, including the “personal community” and the “civil liberties” of those in the park.
“It’s going to create a coalition to help,” Gordon said.
Jim Bailey spoke on behalf of the Downtown Investment Authority.
“Your budget is pretty close to the entire DIA,” Bailey said, remarking that Hemming Park encompasses a city block.
Bailey noted budget anomalies, such as an $850 late fee to a contractor, and a funeral charge that was termed a “gift” by FOHP.
“Those kind of things don’t make a whole lot of sense,” Bailey said, adding “I’m not sure the route we’re going can be successful.
“At what level can we do it? And can we do it better?”
Bailey wants the “auditors” to look at what’s “wise and frugal” at this point.
Wood pointed out “commingled” budget line items, and said they see the “wisdom” of separating funding more explicitly.
The question, said Daryl Joseph of Parks and Rec, is one of measuring success.
Is success the amount of events?
Is success a councilman eating barbeque from a food truck?
“At our other 399 parks,” Joseph said, “free programming” is discussed.
“We have to retrack and look back at what’s been done,” Joseph said regarding other cities with active parks.
Crescimbeni wanted to know what Joseph could do with “five or six hundred thousand dollars a year” for programming.
Questions still remain.
Is the FOHP group overstaffed?
Do FOHP functions overlap with other downtown groups?
Are too many events after hours? Should there be more daytime/weekday programming to make the park inviting to office workers, instead of tailoring events to the millennial crowd?
Should the park be more inviting to children?
“There is a perception that it is not a child and family-friendly location, as much as an adult location,” said Lori Boyer.
Wood noted that “during the day, we have programming all day long,” with live music, magic shows and yoga that “give the park an appearance of safety.”
“Programming the park is what we do most of the time when the park is in operation,” Wood added.
Speaking on behalf of the mayor’s office, Chief of Staff Kerri Stewart noted she feels safe in the park when she didn’t three years ago.
“These are the growing pains we work through as stakeholders,” Stewart said, “and I think we need to acknowledge that the park’s come a long way in a short time.
“What does the next phase look like? What does success look like?”
Sam Mousa, chief administrative officer, said if the FOHP had said there would be a yearly budget hit, it never would have been approved by the council.
Groups programming city facilities, he added, “keep coming back” for more money, despite their insistence they would become self-sustaining.
The contract, said Mousa, needs to be “much tighter” and “people need to be honest” regarding the contractual terms.
“Just keep in mind, most of our facilities end up this way. This meeting should not be a surprise,” he said.
“We need to be realistic up front. The bleeding is not going to stop,” Mousa thundered.
Though there is a general consensus Hemming’s initiatives shouldn’t be scuttled, council president Anderson urged “a decision on an interim step.”
Downtown Vision’s Bailey noted an interest in discerning the “synergies” between the organizations.
“We’ve got to have some information. We’ve got to have accurate responses from DVI,” he said.
Councilwoman Boyer, meanwhile, observed a “lack of confidence” in the numbers, wanting to hear more from auditors before supporting the $150,000 disbursement.
As her presidency approaches in July, her concern is the lack of time to process the auditors’ information.
And, if needed, a special council committee may be in order.
The mayor’s office does not know, said Mousa, what the FOHP budget will be for next year. Indeed, they haven’t even met with the FOHP yet.
The current expectation is a $500,000 city contribution.