Jacksonville's Hemming Park Funded — For Now

May 24, 2016

Funding for Jacksonville’s Hemming Park is up in the air.

The Jacksonville City Council approved $100,000 on Tuesday to park operators Friends of Hemming Park to cover operation costs through the next couple months.

Friends of Hemming Park Executive Director Vince Cavin said Tuesday night the nonprofit only has enough money to operate for about another week unless it was allocated more city funding.

How did this happen?

The city and Friends of Hemming are in a public-private partnership. The city contributed $1 million initially, and Friends of Hemming came up with $250,000 through private donations.

Cavin said on First Coast Connect Tuesday, the group realized last year it wouldn’t have enough money to operate through Sept. 30. During this year’s budgeting process, he asked if the city would set aside $250,000 in case Friends of Hemming needed it. Council approved the money to go into a in a special contingency fund.

At the May 16 City Council Finance meeting, Councilwoman Lori Boyer said Hemming isn’t guaranteed those dollars, otherwise the money would have been budgeted to the park instead of a special account. She said Council wanted to see evidence the park was becoming self-sufficient.

MORE | LISTEN TO VINCE CAVIN ON FIRST COAST CONNECT

“The whole debate at the time was we wanted to see an operating plan and we wanted to see how much money they could raise to decide if we were going to put another $250,000 in operations,” she said. “We hadn’t already made the decision we were giving them that.”

Friends of Hemming asked for the money in February. Around the same time, Community First Credit Union wanted to build a stage in the park. Cavin said it would cost the same amount the nonprofit needed to finish the year, $250,000.

Cavin said Tuesday Councilman Bill Gulliford suggested the city build the stage, and Community First fund operating expenses.

Fifteen weeks later, Community First and Friends of Hemming haven’t been able to come to an agreement, and the park still needs $250,000 to finish out the year.

Cavin said he never thought this process would take so long and during the last few months the nonprofit has burned through all of its reserves, including most of a $100,000 grant from Southwest Airlines.

He said his agreement with Southwest is that the park name something after the airline. Friends of Hemming is planning to name a proposed Black Sheep restaurant kiosk after the airline, but it needs to replenish that money to start the project.

President of Friends of Hemming Park Wayne Wood said the non profit needs the city’s support.

“In order to maintain the activity in the park and the events we have and the maintenance, beauty and security, it takes money to do that,” Wood said. “The city is making a tentative commitment to let us keep doing that, but it has to be ongoing.”

Cavin estimates the park will raise nearly $50,000 later this summer from bigger events but that won’t help sooth it’s funding woes now.

Tuesday’s decision

At Tuesday’s council meeting Councilwoman Lori Boyer amended the bill that would have allocated $250,000 for a Hemming Park stage to $100,000 for operating expenses through July,

“It gets them through a couple months but it gets us past the time that the mayor will submit the budget for next year. We’ll know what next year’s budget looks like so the council members will have that background,” she said. “We all hear it’s going to be very tight.That makes it very difficult to look at increasing the contribution to Hemming next year.”

At last week’s finance meeting some council members, including Aaron Bowman, said the nonprofit's five-year plan was over the top, asking the city for $500,000 a year and millions in projects.

Gulliford said moving forward, any money the city gives to Friends of Hemming will have usage requirements. He said he wants Council to only pay for Hemming Park operations and the Friends of Hemming Park raise dollars for all programs.

“I want to remind everybody that what Hemming Park looks like today compared to what it looks like a couple years ago, it’s been a drastic change for the better,” he said. “While we may have concerns about their use of money, they have brought some significant money to the table."

In contrast, Councilman Matt Schellenberg said he was unwilling to fund the park any longer.

“I think we need to find a more suitable group of people that will do the citizens of Jacksonville, the taxpayers, a better program over at the park,” he said.

The city also introduced a bill giving Hemming the rest of the money it requested, $150,000, but Councilwoman Lori Boyer said the plan is contingent on a review of the group’s finances.