JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mayor Lenny Curry wants to take control of Jacksonville's oldest park back from Friends of Hemming Park.
Just over two years after the nonprofit began to manage Downtown’s iconic “front door to City Hall” park, Curry wants it back under city control, Jacksonville's Financial News and Daily Record reported.
Sam Mousa, Curry’s chief administrative officer, told a special City Council committee Thursday that the administration spent the summer reviewing Friends’ contract and determine the park’s future.
Friends has managed the city-owned asset since Sept. 1, 2014, after securing a contract worth more than $1 million, but required continued city funding to operate after the first 18 months. An audit this summer drew scrutiny over how the group spent some of the initial money.
The mayor's 2016-2017 budget provided $250,000 to the group for a six-month period while the special council committee continued its work to determine the park’s future. Curry, though, has made his decision on what that should be.
“The mayor wants to take over the park,” Mousa told the group, the Daily Record reported.
Mousa said the mayor believes he can improve, program, clean up and possibly come back to council with capital improvement dollars.
Mousa said the city would come up with a plan over the next few month that could include a variety of options. It could be a passive park or include significant renovations. One possibility could be taking down the laurel oaks that are at their end of life.
Mousa said taking the park back wouldn’t come before the six months Curry funded.
The news came as a surprise to Friends leadership and some council members who sat around the table.
“You have put us in a very precarious position,” said Bill Prescott, the Friends interim CEO.
Prescott, a former Jacksonville Jaguars executive, took over after Vince Cavin resigned after council showed a lack of confidence in the group. Under Cavin, the group’s primary focus was programming events to bring people to the park.
Prescott and Friends leadership have restructured priorities to focus on making the park safer and cleaner, two primary concerns of council.
The hope for Friends was to show it could be the group to manage the park long-term. Curry’s desire to take the park back effectively extinguishes that hope.
Friends leadership now has concerns over keeping a staff in place and fundraising.
Council member Greg Anderson, who leads the special Hemming committee, was surprised by the administration’s decision and said he thought the nonprofit had done what council asked it do since the audit.
There still are concerns about the ability of people to enjoy the park, said council member Bill Gulliford.
He relayed a recent story of how a group of women went to the park to enjoy lunch, but had to cut the trip short after being harassed.
Gulliford said he doesn’t care who runs the park — he just wants it to safely be available to everyone.
He suggested if it went under city control, there could be an organization set up for the park similar to what the Jacksonville Public Library has with its Friends of the Library organization.
Mousa said that “something has happened” in the park the past 10-15 years that had led to a downfall. Programmed events haven’t helped, he said, and the park situation hasn’t gotten better.
“It’s not working,” said Mousa.
Prescott afterward said he had no idea of the decision beforehand and still believes a private entity is the best way to manage the city-owned asset.
He said going back under city control would hinder the ability to raise private dollars and grants, such as the $100,000 Southwest Airlines grant Friends secured.
However, the majority of that grant was improperly spent on operations instead of a capital project as it was designed -- part of that summer scrutiny. Council set aside money to either repay the grant or spend it on a capital project.
Budget cuts and an overall lack of investment the past decade put the park in the position it’s in, Prescott said, and Friends is on track to continue improvement that many have seen.
It has hired a full-time private security team and implemented rules that will help enforcement, he said.
He hopes Friends leadership can sit down with Curry and Mousa to talk about the situation.
Anderson suggested that, too, and said he would like to have more specifics about the mayor’s vision so council could better determine a plan.