It took nearly two hours of questions, explanations, amendments and finally a “call the question” for Hillwood to win the approval Wednesday of the City Council Recreation and Community Development Committee.
The 7-0 vote, coupled with Tuesday’s unanimous vote by the Council Finance Committee, means only a vote of the full Council Tuesday stands in the way of the Dallas-based developer from becoming the master developer for Cecil Commerce Center for at least the next 10 years and possibly the next 25 years.
“It’s the Council members doing their jobs,” said Hillwood Vice President Preston Herold, who wasn’t flustered by the two-hour debate that, at times, teetered between testy and comical.
Hillwood was selected by the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission to help the City market and develop about 28,000 acres of land. The deal drew the ire and scrutiny of area developers who felt the Ross Perot-owned company was going to be able to purchase the land for what many viewed as below-market prices. However, throughout the Council committee process, JEDC Executive Director Ron Barton reminded Council members how poorly the City has been able to develop the property on its own.
He said the deal comes with Hillwood’s assurance that it will provide the infrastructure and marketing for individual sites. The company will also be held to strict deadlines pertaining to development once clients have been identified.
Finance and RCD member Daniel Davis reminded the Finance Committee Tuesday that since very little to no interest has been shown in the property over the past few years, the land value is arguably nothing.
Herold, who plans to move to Jacksonville and “spend every waking hour working on the project,” said he has two prospects already interested in Cecil. Once the contract negotiations are complete and the deal has been signed, Herold said he will begin talks in earnest with those prospects. Barton said the deal could be signed 30-45 days after Council approves the legislation.
“The deal is about getting the uncertain political process out of the way and developing sites to create jobs and add to the tax base,” said Herold.
The RCD Committee approved a handful of amendments that will see minor technical changes to the deal. One amendment, though, will alter the name of the company the City will work with. Hillwood is known for using the “Alliance” brand to market its properties. The original legislation says the JEDC was going to enter into a 10-year agreement with three five-year options with Alliance Florida.
However, Davis asked for a change.
“I want to continue using Cecil Commerce Center and call it Alliance Florida at Cecil Commerce Center,” he said. “I think Hillwood is OK with that.”
Barton assured the committee that Hillwood will pay for the infrastructure necessary to bring each site up to par and capable of being developed.
“If roads need to be built to open up the site, or if water and sewer lines are needed, Hillwood will do that.”
Davis, citing the lack of development at Cecil Commerce Center, with the exception of Firestone and SAFT America, both of which received incentives, said having a big-time master developer with a solid reputation is what the former Navy base needs.
“We don’t want to flounder out there anymore,” he said.
Landing owner Toney Sleiman is also a full Council vote from finally receiving the long-promised parking he says will allow him to pursue big-name retailers and restaurants.
The RCD Committee approved the same bill with the same amendments the Finance Committee approved Tuesday. The lot will provide the Landing with about 350 short-term parking spaces.