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Downtown Business Owners Weigh In On Battle Over Hemming Park

Ryan Benk

The nonprofit that manages downtown Jacksonville’s Hemming Park is getting another chance to prove it can handle the responsibility.

Mayor Lenny Curry originally planned for the city to take back control of the park after the Friends of Hemming Park misspent public funds. But Curry last week announced he’d extend Friends’ lease another six months.

Business owners around Hemming want city government to know the park’s condition directly affects their livelihoods.

In between ringing up customers Wednesday, Chamblin’s manager and book appraiser Jennifer O’Donnell recalled the bookstore’s first couple of years being open.

“We’ve been down here for nine years and the first year or two that we were down here it was kind of scary,” she said. “There weren’t a lot of people walking around downtown.”

But, she said, once the nonprofit Friends of Hemming Park gained control in 2014, things changed. Not only did the park look cleaner and more inviting, but regular events brought more people into the shop and cafe.

The nonprofit came under fire last year when a report found financial irregularities in the park’s budget. Some of the more than $1 million in city funds were misspent on things like employee lunches and TVs.

Eventually Curry announced the city would regain control at the end of March and Hemming would revert back to a “passive park,” losing its regular event programming.

O’Donnell thinks that would be a mistake.

“It’s stupid. That’s what I think,” she said. “They need to program the park. Having a green space is good, but the thing is if they think it’s going to keep the vagrants out, the off-the-grid people, they’re wrong.”

Next to Chamblin’s, Magnificat Cafe owner Kathy Desclets agreed. She’s been downtown for 14 years and said the city has already proven it isn't up to the task of maintaining Hemming.

“I know there was a problem with the nonprofit. There were some accountability issues when it came to finances and that’s a huge deal. So, yeah they need to take care of those glitches, definitely,” she said. “Or get another nonprofit, another organization, something else, but to do what they did before? Forget about it. Worst plan for Jacksonville’s downtown, ever.”

City Council will be voting in the next several weeks on the mayor’s plan to give the nonprofit another $400,000 and six months to prove itself or risk losing control for good.

WJCT spoke to a couple businesses  in favor of city control, but they declined comment for this article.

Listen to this story on Redux

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.