Below is the cover story from the Jacksonville Business Journal‘s Aug. 7 issue.
By Timothy Gibbons, editor and chief, Jacksonville Business Journal
Jake Gordon shook the water from his hair as he slid onto a chair at The Volstead, a bar in the heart of Downtown.
Gordon has been spending a lot of time walking the urban core, but when the rain caught him this time, the new executive director of Downtown Vision Inc. was on his way over from a meeting at the Jacksonville Landing.
Deciding what to do with the structure is the job of the public-private partnership — but it’s one of the conversations that Gordon believes DVI needs to be involved in.
It’s not the only one.
“How private property owner are interacting with the City of Jacksonville to make Downtown better — that interaction is one of the most important,” he said.
In his new job, Gordon represents the property owners — public and private, businesses and nonprofits — who will make the very center of the urban core succeed or fail.
He oversees a 90-block area that contains 500 properties, charged with helping to make the area clean and safe, to market it, to make it a place where people want to come and where businesses can thrive.
A few weeks into the job, Gordon sat sipping a ginger beer at one of Downtown’s newest hotspots while talking widely about what brought him to this point in his life.
After a bit of prodding, talk turns to the future. What does success at DVI look like for the New Jersey native?
Gordon pauses: With less than three months on the job, he doesn’t want to commit to anything too precise; defining the goals of Downtown Vision more exactly is part of his mission.
Whatever those goals are, though, he knows how Downtown will have to get there: By getting all the entities that deal with the area on the same page.
“If we’re all pulling in one direction and communicating clearly and we’re a part of that, that alone will be success for us,” he said.
The bigger picture: Seeing Downtown grow.
He’s not doing economic development like he was in his last job, but that doesn’t mean he’s not interested in seeing the economy develop.
“You talk to our property owners, what do they want? They want property values to go up,” he said. “You know who else would love to see higher property values? DVI.”
Leaning forward in a chair at CoWork Jax recently, Jake Gordon speaks animatedly about Hemming Park and why it matters to Jacksonville.
It’s a casual conversation for the newly hired executive director of Downtown Vision Inc., who’s here to continue forging relationship with Downtown denizens. Talk bounces from the park to the Laura Street Trio, from Art Walk to innovative offices.
Things are looking good in the urban core, he said to the group, all of whom are interested in Downtown.
But then he turns a bit serious, explaining where the area has to go: “We have to be a little bit better than we are now.”Getting various organizations moving toward some common goals was a key part of Gordon’s last job, as vice president of business development at Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, an organization dedicated to revitalizing Camden, New Jersey.
Gordon was attracted to the partnership — like Downtown Vision, a private nonprofit organization focused on the urban core — because he saw it as a chance to give back in a way that could help the area’s entire economy grow.
“It married the economic development activities every city should be looking for with this philanthropy angle and a grassroots coordination with the community, which is how every planning exercise should be,” he said.
His strength there was bringing together different players in the efforts to revitalize the area, from real estate developers and entrepreneurs to governmental and quasi-governmental agencies.
Perhaps his crowning achievement: helping lure the Philadelphia 76ers’ practice facility and team headquarters to the area.
After the state committed to an $82 million incentive package, the team said it would build the largest training facility in the NBA along the banks of the Delaware River.
Gordon was “instrumental” in that project, said Anthony Perno III, CEO of the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership.
“A lot of the projects that we brought here he was involved with in a number of capacities,” Perno said. “It was significant. People really miss him.”
At the end of last year, Subaru of America Inc. announced it was moving its headquarters to Camden, and the city is the frontrunner for American Water Works’ headquarters.
Other successes include helping set up a co-working/incubator space, a project praised by those hoping to jump-start Camden’s tech scene.
“He’s a thorough collaborator,” said Sandy Johnson, executive director of the Camden Redevelopment Agency. “He’s got a great skill for completion.”
For all that Camden has some similarities to Jacksonville — it, too, has a river running through it, although it’s managed to get rid of the prison that used to sit along the water — Gordon takes pains to explain that his job is different here.
In Camden, the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership subsumed a lot of functions, including working as a sort of de facto arm of the city.
Here, an array of organizations are involved with Downtown: Jax Chamber , the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville , the Jacksonville Civic Council , the Downtown Investment Authority, Visit Jacksonville , Riverside Avondale Preservation — Gordon rattles off the list like he’s been using flashcards.
“In my past job, communication with the city was essential,” he said. “Here, communication between all those entities is very essential. DVI is not going to do anything in a vacuum to drastically improve Jacksonville, but altogether we are.”
The biggest of those partners is the Downtown Investment Authority, the independent authority the Alvin Brown administration set up four years ago.
The establishment of the authority was a major step for the urban core, although it took two years to bring on an executive director and the entity has nowhere near the funding it would require to carry out all of its plans.
It also led to some soul-searching by Downtown Vision, which heretofore had been the biggest voice on such issues.
“Our mission needed to change to be a supportive mission to the DIA,” Gordon said. “We’re very complementary to each other.”
Most of Downtown Vision’s $1.2 million budget comes from a fee the Downtown property owners assess on themselves. Much of the money is used for the clean and safe mission — “dirty and dangerous wasn’t working,” Gordon jokes — including hiring the orange-clad ambassadors who are a constant presence Downtown.
It also markets the area and is responsible for events like Art Walk, the success of which is perhaps DVI’s biggest accomplisment.
Creating such events should be an even bigger part of its role, said Downtown Investment Authority CEO Aundra Wallace, an ex-officio member of DVI’s board.
“I challenged them to make the experience of Downtown so vast and so great that people during the day would want to get out of the office and come and partake in Downtown,” he said.
Wallace voted to hire Gordon, in part because of the new CEO’s role in creating experiences in his old job.
“I got a flavor that he did those type of social mixtures in Camden,” Wallace said. “Knowing Camden, that’s not easy to do. If he can do that in Camden, with the momentum we have going on, Jake can bring that same energy and it will take off.”
Gordon didn’t start off his career revitalizing downtowns.
After getting his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he spent three years with O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles, a firm considered one of the 25 most prestigious in the country.
But he had interned as a public defender, and after a few years with the firm, he was drawn to something involving public service, he realized.
That brought him back east, to Camden, to “the poorest and most dangerous city in America.”
“I wanted to look back on my life later and be proud of what I did,” he said. “At some level of litigation, you’re pushing back and forth on hours and money and the only people who win are the lawyers.”
He took a pay cut to do so — he’s still not back to the $125,000 he made as a starting associate — but the successes he had in Camden made it worthwhile. (The DVI job pays $115,000 a year.)
Jacksonville doesn’t need the same level of help, obviously — but that reality can paradoxically make the job of improvement more difficult.
“When places really bottom out, there’s more resources. We didn’t have to sell people on the need in Camden,” he said.
The situation in Jacksonville is more attractive than a 40 percent poverty rate and a college-educated population under 10 percent, the sort of situation Camden was dealing with.
But that can make it harder to push through change, Gordon said, with the status quo more attractive.
Nevertheless, he’s optimistic change can happen: “I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise. I think Jacksonville is on the rise.”
A decade from now, he said, Jacksonville will be a “hugely robust city,” with its Downtown fueling that growth.
“Downtown is always the center of that,” he said. “As Downtown goes, Jacksonville goes.”