JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As the Jacksonville Landing is set to be destroyed and the city officially starts soliciting bids to tear it down, the iconic former mayor responsible for the decades-old landmark has a plea to the city's present leader: let the public help decide its future.
Following a decline in popularity and success, repeated discussions about how to revitalize the riverfront mall, and legal battles, the city of Jacksonville bought out the lease of developer Toney Sleiman's company for $15 million in order to take control of its future.
City Council's approval of the deal included an additional $1.5 million to buy out the long-term leases from businesses operating at the Landing and then another $1.5 million to demolish it.
Recently, former Mayor Jake Godbold -- who was the mayor of Jacksonville 32 years ago and is credited with the creation of the Landing -- joined News4Jax anchor Tom Wills at the downtown landmark to talk about what the Landing was expected to become when it was built and what the future really holds.
Tom Wills: You remember this place when it was prospering. Being here today, when it is virtually a ghost town, does it hurt?
Jake Godbold: It makes you want to cry as I come here and sit here today. Just unbelievable. Going back when we had the grand opening, what a beautiful day it was that day, that night, and the weeks and months and years that followed.
Godbold is now offering a heartfelt appeal to Mayor Lenny Curry to make sure everyone in this city has the right to know in detail what is planned for this publicly-owned riverfront property -- which he calls downtown's "diamond."
The Landing opened in 1987 as bands played and balloons floated overhead in celebration. Godbold, who was mayor at the time, spoke to the crowd with excitement about its bright future.
"We needed a centerpiece, not a corner piece. A centerpiece that we could build from," Goldbold said to the public as the mall opened for business.
But the crowds that used to come to the Landing are long gone, and the space is deserted.
"People come to me all the time and say, 'Mayor, what in the world did we do at the Florida-Georgia game before the Landing was here?' 'Cause this is the gathering place of all the Georgia people and all the Florida people. This is where the action was. This is where the little guy came. This is where we all felt good," said Godbold.
But now, Godbold said if the Landing has outlived its usefulness, Lenny Curry, as the current Mayor, does have the right to decide where the city goes from here, but that the public should have a say.
Godbold: I think we all need to be involved in that decision because this land belonged to the public then, it belongs to the public now, and they have a right to have a say so in the next step. And I want to be on board with whatever that next step is, but I, like the public, don't know what the next step is. Is it really to tear all of this down and start over again? If it is, what's the plan to take its place? I think we have a right to know what that plan is.
Wills: As a lifelong resident of Jacksonville, what would you like to see on this property?
Godbold: It's got to be now and forever the public's property. I want this to be something that belongs to the people, that they can come and gather -- not just at Christmas and not just for football games, but on weekends -- that this is a public area where there should be happiness, where there should be people, and they should feel good about themselves and their city, and they go home and say, "I want to go back, I want to have a good time."
Godbold said he is troubled that the Curry administration has not been more open about its plans for the future of the Landing property and has not sought fresh public input on what the city should do.
"All we know is they want to knock this building down and start over again. Is that the right thing to do? Or, should we do what many other cities did: refurbish, rebuild or reconstruct some of what's here now? I don't know, but we need to take a look at all the options before we make that next step," Godbold said.
He has one fear when it comes to the future of the Landing property.
"The thing I don't want to see is we squabble or we have some plan to let some private developer come in here and make a bunch of money off of this property that belongs to you and me and our grandchildren. And that's what I don't want to see happen," he said.
Any bids the city receives for the Landing's demolition will be opened by the city on June 14, although they won't be made public at that time. The bids would be publicly unsealed 30 days later, or sooner if the bid is awarded. The city's Public Works department will score the bids and make a selection.