Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

City Council Panel OKs $1 Million to Downtown Group; Friends of Hemming Park Would Restore and Manage the Plaza

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

City Council Panel OKs $1 Million to Downtown Group; Friends of Hemming Park Would Restore and Manage the Plaza

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Hong

A $1 million agreement with a nonprofit group to oversee Hemming Plaza was approved by a Jacksonville City Council committee and could get a final go from the full council next Wednesday.

The council Finance Committee voted 8-1 to approve the bill, which would give Friends of Hemming Park $1 million in public money to restore and manage the downtown plaza for 18 months.

Friends of Hemming Park formed last spring to help reinvigorate the plaza. Although the park is a prominent feature of downtown and sits at the doorstep of City Hall, it has earned the reputation as an untidy area and popular hangout for the homeless.

Under the agreement, Friends of Hemming Park would hire eight staff members to organize events, manage vendors and collaborate with other downtown property owners to make the plaza safe and attractive. The group also would assume responsibility for cleaning the park and making improvements.

The group, which has partnered with Downtown Vision and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, also has pledged to raise $250,000 in cash over the next year.

Councilman Matt Schellenberg voted against the bill, calling it a piecemeal solution for improving downtown.

"I think we need to digest this and decide what we want to do downtown before giving almost $1 million going forward," Schellenberg said.

However, Councilman Bill Gulliford said he was ready to improve the plaza.

"Let's quit fooling around," Gulliford said. "If the committee votes it down, let's upgrade the entrance on the back side of City Hall, because I'm tired of bringing in people through the front door and trying to get them to avoid being any part of Hemming Plaza."

With the Finance Committee's vote, the agreement is ready for the full City Council's final approval, which would make it official. …

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