Jacksonville Urban League “First Thursdays”: real talk about sustainable solutions

Jacksonville Urban League

Other than FloridaPolitics.com, there was no media at the initial nighttime “First Thursday” event held by the Jacksonville Urban League. And that’s a shame. In terms of productive, candid, no holds barred conversation among civic leaders and the dozen or so residents who were in attendance, the First Thursday event had no rival.

As the headline suggests, sustainable solutions were on the agenda. There was no shortage of people in position to offer vital takes you simply wouldn’t hear anywhere else.

W. Larry Williams, president and CEO of FirstThursdays World Wide and Richard Danford, president and CEO of  Jacksonville Urban League, hosted the event, along with Councilman Jim Love. Also in attendance were Councilwoman-elect Joyce Morgan and Councilman Bill Gulliford, an indispensable part of the evening’s discourse.

A central part of the discussion was providing loan and financing opportunities for small businesses, which can be an issue in Jacksonville’s Urban Core, Northwest Jacksonville, and other areas struggling to share in the current prosperity. As  Danforth put it, many small businesses are not “bankable.” To that end, the Urban League partners with Wells Fargo and other community stakeholders to allow “loans,” ranging in amount from “$10,000 to $50,000” for “small businesses that typically would not qualify” for conventional financing.

Williams discussed an innovative concept that has gotten traction in Seattle with buy-in from local and state governments: an “equity crowdfunding portal” that would allow under-capitalized businesses to get the working capital they need to get through the first 18 months, a period when lack of sufficient capital can sink otherwise worthy businesses.

Since “90 percent of all jobs are produced by small businesses,” and since “African-American small businesses are the largest employer of black folks outside the federal government,” capitalization on favorable terms to small businesses doesn’t just stabilize the businesses themselves.

It stabilizes the communities where the businesses operate.

After those programs were discussed, the council members talked about other measures to help stabilize communities that are on the brink. Gulliford was especially on point during this part of the program, as he discussed an initiative that could apply to the beleaguered Northwest Quadrant and other areas. He suggested a land bank, which could provide transitional housing for reformed felons and others who need it, which could have the potential of turning neighborhoods around.

He cited the stark reality of 30,000 abandoned properties in the city, squandered potential that, if not resolved, could lead to a Detroit-style decline in the city. He would like government to take a role in remedying that. Neighborhoods, as he knows from his decades in public service, are the building blocks upon which social stability is founded.

He cited the Durkeeville neighborhood, just north of the Urban League building, as an example of potential the city must maximize, saying that if the housing stock were in San Marco, a thoroughly gentrified enclave, the value would be much higher.

The decline of the value of the housing stock paralleled a decline in the neighborhood itself during the past half-century, as a thriving black neighborhood lost its young people to migration to newer suburban neighborhoods. As the properties became less desired, owner-occupied homes became rental or investment properties, which set into motion a policy of gradual disinvestment and casual neglect.

One solution Gulliford advanced for the area: a pocket industrial park for a local business that needed to distribute citywide. Neighborhood stability would allow diversification of purpose.

Beyond a discussion of Durkeeville, there was also a spirited discussion of the Eureka Gardens complex between Gulliford and local activist Denise Hunt. The two had a frank exchange about the issues surrounding the complex, and both seemed to agree that the owners of the Section 8 complex weren’t, in Gulliford’s words, as “all in as they could be.” Hunt added that a main issue there are the owners making quick fixes to satisfy the bare minimum requirements of code enforcement. She spotlighted similar issues at Cleveland Arms and Washington Heights, two other notorious complexes where people live in federally subsidized squalor.

The challenges facing the areas of Jacksonville that have been immune to the economic boom are very real, and they will require an institutional commitment from stakeholders: residents, engaged members of local government, and civic organizations. Events such as “First Thursday” offer very good opportunities for members of the community to have real dialogues about the problems under-capitalized businesses and neglected neighborhoods face. Let’s hope July’s event will have more robust attendance to advance the discussions to provide solutions to endemic issues.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has written for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. He is based in Northeast Florida. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski


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