Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown renews focus on small businesses

David Bauerlein

From the Florida Times-Union

The crowd at Mayor Alvin Brown’s first Business Builder conference in early 2012 still bore the wounds of the Great Recession, casting a sense of guarded optimism among the budding entrepreneurs who turned out for the event.

Brown convened his third annual Business Builder seminar Friday morning and found a conference room full of small-business owners in the mood to clap, yell and wave their hands.

“If you’re ready to go to the next level, I need you to stand and give yourself a round of applause,” Brown said in a spirited speech that did get people on their feet.

Later Friday, Brown announced another initiative to help small business, this time focusing on Northwest Jacksonville where neighborhoods have long suffered from high poverty and lack of jobs.

“I think the city is going in the right direction, and part of it is we’re all working together,” Brown said, noting the drop in the unemployment rate.

But he said too many residents of Northwest Jacksonville are left out of the “mainstream economy.”

“That must change if we’re going to thrive and prosper as one community,” he said in announcing a Community Wealth Building Initiative.

Brown recently signed two executive orders related to Northwest Jacksonville:

■ A 14-member task force will oversee the Community Wealth Building Initiative, which seeks to help neighborhood-based businesses expand by selling their goods and services to large “anchor” institutions. Those are nonprofit and governmental entities such as hospitals and universities.

The initiative stems from The Democracy Collaborative, a national nonprofit whose model has been used in some other cities. In Jacksonville, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, known as ICARE, first raised the idea.

■ Brown will restart a nine-member advisory group for the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund. The fund has $7 million in it, but it’s been idle the past three years except for a $400,000 commitment to the Bruss Co. for a meat processing plant.

Juan Gray, board chairman of the Jacksonville chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said he’s skeptical the announcements will be more than window dressing. He has been a critic of the mayor regarding Northwest Jacksonville.

“I’m interested in action, not rhetoric,” Gray said. “We keep picking up the ball and punting it. … We haven’t gotten in the red zone yet — nowhere near scoring.”

Joe Whitaker, who recently retired from the city’s Office of Economic Development, will be chairman of the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development advisory board.

Other members appointed so far are John Allmand, Cynthia Glover, George Barnes, Royce McGowan, Karen Landry and Brenna Durden.

Brown said he also is working with JAX Chamber on other programs geared toward assisting small business.

The Business Building seminars entailed a day of panel discussions and presentations. The city spent about $9,500 to stage the event at the Schultz Center for Teaching and Learning.

About 350 people registered to attend the event, which was free. The first Business Builder conference in February 2012 attracted about 450.