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Jacksonville Rides Jaguars Into an Age of 'Urban Cachet'

Football pride and unmatched job growth put Florida boomtown on the map

On Blount Island, a brief boat ride from downtown, one engine of Jacksonville's economy is humming.

Hundred-acre fields are filled with ship containers ready for export to Puerto Rico, thousands of cars are driven down gangplanks as if on a moving assembly line, and Brazilian pulp is spun into bundles resembling huge twirls of cotton candy.

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Activity at Jacksonville's port was up last year and the year before that and every year of the past decade, pumping jobs, profits, and taxes into the local economy to the tune of more than a billion dollars a year.

The port is just one of the many signs that Jacksonville is emerging from the shadows of Atlanta and Miami, exhibiting the kind of economic and cultural vigor that heralds the ascendancy of former "second tier" Southern cities.

Perhaps the most important harbinger of Jacksonville's coming out is the pace of job growth. Nearly 9,000 jobs were created in the metro area last year alone, a record for the city and a figure that means Jacksonville outpaced Orlando, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., and even Atlanta in terms of new job creation.

But these benchmarks would be misunderstood if taken only at face value. To Jacksonville's residents, this is not only about numbers or dollars. It's also about pride.

After seeing their city burn to the ground at the turn of the century, then hearing it ridiculed over decades for the stench its pulp mills belched, Jacksonville natives now point to their glass-walled skyscrapers and a state-of-the-art performing arts center perched above the St. Johns River. They revel in their new 73,000-seat football stadium and the stunning renovation of a historic department store that has just become Jacksonville's city hall.

"You always have your cachet cities: Seattle, Portland, Charlotte, Orlando," says Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney in his posh office. "Sometimes they burn out and sometimes they fade. But just now, Jacksonville is cachet."

That's not to say the city doesn't have its troubles - or that the transformation came overnight. Jacksonville's renaissance, anyone in town will tell you, has been hard-won and is not yet complete.

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"This has got another five, six more years in heading up the right way," Mayor Delaney says of the turnaround.

In that time, he predicts that many of the dilapidated, inner-city neighborhoods that still exist will be revitalized. The strong economy and push for downtown development have just begun to ignite renewal in areas away from the riverfront, the city's showplace.

The schools are one of the city's weakest points - the system's dropout rate is 22 percent, a full 14 percentage points higher than the national average.

And concern about the environment is a looming issue. As the sixth fastest-growing metro area in the country, the city suffers from suburban sprawl.

"Naturally we are concerned about Jacksonville's growth overall," says Maurice Coman, chair of the Northeast Florida Group, a local Sierra Club chapter. "What's worse is a lot of that growth is expanding into undeveloped areas and a lot of those are wildlife habitats."

But by most counts - number of museums, number of people moving to the area, number of crimes committed - Jacksonville is a far better place to live than it was even five years ago.

"We've seen a really significant cultural transition here," says Jacksonville Sheriff, Nat Glover, a native of the city and the first black sheriff elected in Jacksonville's history. "I would like to think that we're ahead of the average American city in terms of rapidly moving in a positive direction."

For most residents, the start of this upswing has a date: Nov. 30, 1993. That's when National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue named Jacksonville home to one of the league's two newest expansion teams and the Jacksonville Jaguars were born.

While many aspects of Jacksonville's revitalization were set in motion long before that day, the Jaguars have galvanized a feeling of pride in Jacksonville like nothing else in recent memory.

"It wasn't anything I predicted until the day I walked into the stadium," Delaney says. "Then I saw black and white, young and old, all hugging and pulling for the same thing. The team's been a spark."

In addition, much of the city's job-creation bonanza can be traced to the NFL. With the announcement, Jacksonville's chamber of commerce realized it had a golden opportunity on its hands - every week for half the year, Jacksonville's name would be on national TV and in newspapers around the country; the city would be inadvertently advertised on T-shirts, sweatshirts, and ball caps from coast to coast. This was a time to promote Jacksonville as never before.

The first ads, dubbing Jacksonville "the expansion city" and touting its geographic location, work force, and transportation options, were printed in national media during the Jaguars' premiere season. Subsequent campaigns followed, showcasing companies that had moved to Jacksonville and having them talk about why.

"Nothing had more value in enhancing the awareness of Jacksonville than having the NFL pick the Jaguars," says Daniel Connell, vice president of marketing for the team. "It was critical in getting us on the map."

The marketing efforts began bearing fruit last year, when the city attracted three new companies that each brought in more than 1,000 new jobs - a succession of deals that is unheard of for a city Jacksonville's size. Those jobs - mainly administrative positions in the financial sector - came in addition to 50 other business deals that attracted or retained some 10,000 jobs for Jacksonville.

With job opportunities come people. And once high-paid employees move to town, culture follows, city leaders say. The first evidence of this is blossoming in Jacksonville as new restaurants and art galleries open across the city. Jacksonville's symphony was recently invited to play in Carnegie Hall in New York, an unusual honor even for more renowned urban symphonies. And the mayor has made expanding the city's cultural opportunities a top priority.

But all of that could crumble if the city's economy doesn't keep expanding. Despite the growth, the city has seen its share of job turbulence in recent months. Barnett Banks Inc., headquartered in Jacksonville, was bought out by NationsBank of Charlotte last year. Though many jobs will stay in the city for now, the future impact of the merger is unknown. American Express moved out many of its employees last year, as did Independent Life insurance company.

"The problem with nice, white-collar jobs is that they just don't stay very long," says Neal Ganzel at the Jacksonville Port Authority. "They're here today and gone with the next merger."

In part as a response to that instability, the city is now focusing on attracting manufacturing jobs by highlighting five large land parcels for an air industrial park, an auto factory, or biomedical facilities. It's a strategy that puts Jacksonville in direct competition with states like South Carolina and Alabama, which have won major automaking plants over the past several years, and North Carolina's Research Triangle Park.

But that's not something city leaders are shying away from. Whatever it takes, they vow to keep Jacksonville a cachet city.

"As long as the economy remains strong," says John Haley, vice president of Jacksonville's Chamber of Commerce, "I feel confident that we will continue to be a sought-after location."

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