Jacksonville's former shipyards could soon become a lot more exciting thanks to a plan that's quickly gaining traction with city officials.
Houston-based amusement park developer Funtime, Inc. is eyeing the 40-acre plot as the site of a new mixed-use development, with some resident, office and commercial space. The big attraction, though, will be an amusement park anchored by a 150-foot tall riverfront roller coaster.
Funtime CEO James Gilliam says he believes an entertainment complex would be a huge tourism draw for Jacksonville, and the perfect way to kick start the city's fledgling urban core. He and city officials are looking to what other large cities have done to successfully recharge their downtown areas for inspiration.
"Think about the London Eye [Ferris wheel]," says Gilliam. "We want to build something that big and iconic that it becomes part of Jacksonville's identity, and is a reason for locals and visitors to come to the heart of the city."
The proposed "Moving To The Next Level" roller coaster would have a distinct Jacksonville flavor, with areas designed after the city's signature bridges, and cars that look like the city's Skyway monorail.
Funtime has had success with a similar project, albeit on a smaller scale, with a riverfront roller coaster in Natchez, Mississippi. Natchez Mayor Larry "Butch" Brown points to the coaster for revitalizing the area.
"It has completely transformed our city," says Brown. "We have thousands of people coming here each year. It has made our riverfront vibrant again. Not only that, those visitors also spend time in the historic parts of Natchez. That means more revenue for those businesses, and a better economic outlook for the city."
Funding for the park would come in part from a deal between Jacksonville and the state that includes city incentives and money from Florida's Outdoor Family Entertainment Trust Fund.
Funtime and the city are still in discussions about the economic feasibility of the project, but City Council President Bill Bishop says he thinks the administration and local residents will get behind the idea and the $10 million incentive package.
"“I think when it comes to downtown, we have to think big, and it doesn’t get much bigger than a 150-foot giant rollercoaster in the middle of your city," says Bishop. "I have no doubt the package will fly through City Council.”
As for the state's portion of the deal, State Senator Aaron Bean says he expects the $80 million tax credit to also pass trough the legislature quickly.
"I think it’s going to be a great idea not just for downtown Jacksonville, it’s going to be great for all of Northeast Florida," says Bean. "It’s going to make us a destination point where we are going to bring in thousands of visitors to downtown Jacksonville."
Despite this optimism, some members of the City Council are hesitant about the plan.
"Sometimes things sound too good to be true," says one councilman, "especially on April Fools' Day."
Happy April Fools' Day from WJCT News.