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Committee approves $58K to keep Hemming Park group afloat

Council members divided on city's funding for Friends of Hemming Park

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville City Council will vote next week on whether to move forward with giving additional money to Friends of Hemming Park, the organization that manages the Downtown park.

The finance committee voted this week to move forward with paying the group $58,000 to continue operating for the next two months.

If City Council votes to approve the money on Tuesday, an additional $74,000 would be set aside to pay back Southwest Airlines for a grant that was given to the group for a capital project, but was instead used for operational costs.

That money would be in addition to the $250,000 Mayor Lenny Curry has included for the group in his proposed city budget for 2016-17.

City Councilman John Crescimbeni is not in support of the finance committee’s vote to continue funding Friends of Hemming Park.

“If you read the council auditor's report, which includes a check register of all their disbursement since they took over in October 2014, there's a whole litany of expenses that never should have been made,” Crescimbeni said. “I think it's time to move on and find another organization that can do what we thought this group was going to do.”

Crescimbeni said he’s not happy with what he sees in the Downtown park, and that Friends of Hemming Park has had plenty of time to make changes.

“What's out there today is not what I was envisioning, and not what was being sold to me by these people when they were trying to get this business from the city back in the summer of 2014,” Crescimbeni said.

But City Councilman Bill Gulliford isn’t on the same page.

“We've gotten the good vibes about the programming. That has not been the problem,” Gulliford said. “I think the problem relates to defining who provides what by way of financing, and that's where we're going to head. There's still a committee that's going to address that, and it's going to be ongoing.”

He said that if approved, the money will have specific controls attached to it, and he thinks interim leader Bill Prescott will only bring positive changes.

“He's doing that at no charge, not taking a salary,” Gulliford said. “I think he's a very true, smart, savvy guy who is committed, and that’s a big move, and I feel much more comfortable now.”

Prescott said he’s ready to meet the needs of businesses, visitors and city leaders, and described some of the improvements he’s already envisioning.

“I would love to see this park be all grass instead of the pavers that it is,” Prescott said. “It's a hard scape, but I think there's a pallet here that we can work with in terms of whether we look at this area by Sweet Pete's and say, 'You know what, that's a natural place for a playground.'”

People on both sides of the issue said the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office needs to be more involved with the upkeep and improvement of Hemming Park, saying that there needs to be a more consistent officer presence.