The debate continued up until the Jacksonville City Council approved a proposal Tuesday for a Dallas-based company to direct future development at Cecil Commerce Center.
The Council voted 16-0 to accept proposed ordinance 2010-352 to allow Texas-based Hillwood to become the master developer at Cecil Commerce Center for up to 25 years.
Council members Richard Clark and Denise Lee were excused and Clay Yarborough declared a business conflict.
“We are excited about getting the approval to proceed,” said Preston Herold, Hillwood vice president. “It’s been a long process. We started talking to JEDC in July 2007. So now we have to deliver on the promises we’ve made. The City has entrusted us with this most important project and now we have to deliver.”
Being named “master developer” means the company will use its own capital and marketing to make Cecil Commerce Center desirable to potential buyers through the development of infrastructure at the property.
The Jacksonville Economic Development Commission has been charged with oversight of the project and will monitor Hillwood’s progress in meeting contractual benchmarks for progress.
“It’s great to get to the finish line,” said Ron Barton, JEDC executive director. “This was in the best interest of the City. Normally, during a base closing, the municipality dealing with the closure is dealt cards that aren’t necessarily a winning hand. Hillwood is looking to deliver success at Cecil that will benefit the City for a long time to come.”
The land that Hillwood will develop is part of the former Cecil Field Naval Air Station, which was recommended for closure in July 1993 by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. The City responded by developing the Cecil Field Development Commission, succeeded by the JEDC.
One of the commission’s main functions was to develop a base reuse plan that would create the structure for the base to transition from a fully operational Navy base to civilian use.
After the plan was approved, the property was conveyed between July 1999 and April 2002 to the JEDC, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, the City of Jacksonville Parks Department and Clay County.
The point of contention between the City and private business owners was fair market value of the property, with some area business leaders pointing out that the City was letting the land go too cheaply and giving an unfair advantage to a developer from outside of Jacksonville.
“We aren’t against development of Cecil Field. We want to see Jacksonville succeed,” said Paul Forte, immediate past president of the Northside Business Leaders. “We are against certain details in the contract that has been proposed between the City and Hillwood.”
Forte made this statement at a meeting of the Northside Business Leaders at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Tuesday where Barton and local commercial developer Daniel Webb debated the proposal hours before the City Council approved the deal.
“Our concern is that the City is going into an alliance with a private developer in direct conflict with other private developers in the community to promote Cecil Field,” said Webb. “We believe that is unfair competition and government interference in the free enterprise system and private industry.”
After debating the issue with Webb and taking questions from the group, Barton also talked about the questions being asked.
“I hear a lot of fear in the critique of the proposal,” said Barton. “In my experience, the people who don’t think the pie will grow, that economic development is not going to be here for us, frankly, it’s self-fulfilling.
“I believe we are going to have a growing pie and Cecil is part of it,” said Barton.
Council echoed Barton’s sentiment after it approved the proposal.
“Several years ago, the citizens of Jacksonville spoke about what they wanted to see at Cecil Field,” said Council member Daniel Davis. “With this vote we have taken a huge leap in that direction.”
Herold expected that it would take two to three weeks for the contract to be completed between the City and Hillwood, and during that time Hillwood would re-establish talks with businesses that had expressed an interest in Cecil Field.
“There were a couple of proposals that we put on hold until we completed the approval process,” said Herold. “We will get back with them in the coming weeks to continue the dialog we started.”
Hillwood will establish office space at Cecil Field and Herold will be onsite to direct development efforts.