The Jacksonville City Council convened Thursday to discuss one of the most controversial and expansive economic development deals in the history of the city, ultimately deferring the measure in light of unresolved issues.
One of those unresolved issues is whether the deal will keep the Jaguars in town, something they have yet to make a hard commitment to, including on Thursday.
In response to questions from Council, Jaguars President Mark Lamping noted he couldn’t guarantee the team would stay as the city contemplates spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Lot J.
That proposal, advanced by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Cordish Companies, is a public private partnership to bring an arena, apartments, a boutique hotel, and other amenities to the doorstep of the stadium — one that would be launched with the clock running out on the Jaguars’ stadium lease.
One Councilman asked Lamping if the team was planning to leave or not.
Democrat Garrett Dennis asked Lamping whether or not the Jaguars would relocate if Lot J wasn’t approved timely. The answer was something less than definitive.
“We’re doing what we believe is necessary to ensure NFL football is here in Northeast Florida for decades to come,” Lamping said, saying that this project, along with a “stadium solution that will go well into the future” and a “better football team on the field” would help “ensure we stay in Jacksonville.”
Khan has “invested hundreds of millions of dollars already and he’s prepared to invest hundreds of millions more,” Lamping added.
“All of that is being done to ensure we stay in Jacksonville,” Lamping said. “This is a very complex decision, it’s not going to come down to any one thing. We’ve been at this for two years. You never say never. This is the time to move forward.”
Lamping added that “if this body votes this down, we move on to the next thing.”
“We have 10 years left on our lease. We have been talking for several years about our need to get ahead of the curve as regards to the stadium,” Lamping said, so the team didn’t “find itself in trouble” down the road because of the “lack of a stadium component.”
The Jaguars are involved in Project Lifetime, an initiative with the Mayor’s Office, ASM Global, and the Haskell Company, “designed to answer the question of what the stadium of the future looks like.”
While the “stadium of the future” is conceptual, real discussions are years into the future, perhaps in 2023, after the next rounds of local elections, Lamping said.
The Jaguars would be a “big part of that financing,” Lamping said.
But Lamping said the preliminary discussions are evidence the Jaguars want to stay in Jacksonville.
“We are doing everything to stay here. This is where we want to stay,” Lamping said.
Republican Kevin Carrico asked if renovation would be enough, and Lamping said a lot depended on “an assessment of the structural systems.”
Lamping was confident that the current structure wouldn’t present “safety hazards well into the future,” allowing for possible renovation. But stakeholder discussions are still ongoing to determine what’s needed in the future structure.
“That’s not something you do overnight,” Lamping said. “And the Jaguars have their own vision.”
Beyond the lack of a guarantee of the team staying in town, another problem for some Council members is the price tag. The city would spend at least $150 million on the plan and, when interest is factored in, $390 million could be spent, according to the Council auditor.
Amid this drama and this sticker shock is the erosion of Curry and Jaguars owner Shad Khan‘s popularity in fresh polling from the University of North Florida. They are underwater and so is the Lot J deal.
Curry has gone on record saying the Lot J deal is necessary if Jacksonville wants to remain an NFL city. Some are skeptical of that appraisal, but Lamping’s words suggest that if a deal isn’t cut, the moving vans may come to the Sports Complex.
Meanwhile, Lot J is a hot potato.
The Council pushed the proposal to the city’s Downtown Investment Authority and it approved the proposal with conditions Wednesday, however, pushing the pitch back to the 19-member legislative body for Thursday’s meeting.
Democratic Council President Tommy Hazouri sought to push back the decision to January, but Jaguars’ lobbyist Paul Harden balked, citing “deal fatigue” as a possibility in the interregnum.
Encountering resistance, Harden said Hazouri could discharge the bill from the Council floor Tuesday, a suggestion that Hazouri resisted, but which could happen without his say if there are 13 votes to move the legislation.