The owner of the Jacksonville Armada wants to build a soccer stadium on the city’s Eastside, just north of the existing venues for baseball, football and hockey.
Surrounding the city land where the soccer stadium is being proposed is a historically black community that has struggled with economic development, and residents there are looking at their potential new neighbor with a mix of skepticism and hope.
Suzanne Pickett heads the Historic Eastside Community Development Corporation. On Veterans Day, she was leading The Jaxson’s Mike Field on a tour of the neighborhood.
“The area with the stadium is only two blocks over,” she said, pointing to a couple of current Jaguars parking areas. “You can see how many houses are there, around it.”
The lots are where the soccer stadium would go.
Mike Field said, “Going to a game, you would never know that there's all this building stock back here, right? All the people that live here… it's still a fairly dense residential neighborhood.”
“It is fairly dense,” Pickett said. “This is why we want to let people know that, you know, you look on a map and people identify parcels. But when you come through, you actually see and meet really great people in our community.”
Longtime resident Tia Keitt remembers when the area was more vibrant.
“My aunt and uncle lived on Van Buren Street and had the shop on the on Florida Avenue. It was very much your walkable, work-where-I-live type of community before that was part of urban revitalization in vogue stuff,” she said.
Pickett and Keitt were walking down the main drag, A. Philip Randolph Boulevard.
“These are our businesses that are still open, so we do have a few blocks of businesses and ownership in the neighborhood,” Pickett said as we passed a salon and a restaurant.
But the advocates say economic stagnation is the norm, along with vacant lots.
Up the street, Bruce Moye was setting up a Veteran’s Day cookout outside the Brotherhood social club, where he’s president.
“When I asked them when I joined, the intention, they said, it's supposed to be just a beacon for the community,” he said. That means holding events like Juneteenth to commemorate the end of slavery.
As for what he thinks of a soccer stadium, he says it could be good and bad. It could provide jobs for teens, and it could mean tearing homes down.
“If they come in here and just reestablish the whole zone and don't create [an] avenue for the people in the community, you know what I’m saying? It’s just like a glass bubble, and we can't get inside that glass.”
As part of the proposal the Mayor’s Budget Committee has approved, as The Florida Times-Union reported, the Armada’s owner would be required to create a nonprofit to support “rejuvenation, renovation, education, health and wellness” on the Eastside.
CDC President Suzanne Pickett asked, why?
“A lot of people come to the Eastside and make assumptions that what we have is not already here that they need to come and bring something new and they need to bring in experts. And the community here, we are the experts. We have great human capital here. We have great resources here and partners here," she said.
Among the work her group is already doing: building affordable housing, putting up Eastside signs at the entrances to the community to create brand identity, and trying to convert a historic mortuary into a community center.
“I think that it's worth having a conversation with the leaders of the community before anyone comes in to do anything,” Pickett said.
The soccer stadium proposal that’s set to go before City Council says construction would begin by January of 2024.
Armada club President and General Manager Nathan Walter has a meeting with the Historic Eastside Community Development Corporation scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday. He told WJCT News he’ll also be at Hemming Park on Friday, Nov. 22, for Visit Jacksonville’s 25th anniversary celebration, to answer any questions about the stadium.
Updated: This story was updated after it was originally published to mention the planned meeting between Walter and the Eastside organization.