Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, I always considered myself a big city girl. And I always dreamed I’d one day work as a young professional in a similar sized big city; one with tall buildings, stadiums for pro-sports teams, concert halls and trendy restaurants.
I imagined living in a modern downtown loft apartment complete with a rooftop pool, state-of-the-art fitness center and exposed beam ceilings. I used to think it would be so thrilling to work in a bustling city center, where up-and-comers shuffled down the street with way-too-tall stiletto heels and chic business suits in flashy colors.
After ten years as a working young professional, my office is finally located in my city’s center – downtown Jacksonville, Florida. Upon taking the job at Jacksonville City Hall, none of the aforementioned characteristics came to mind as finally becoming a reality for me. Jacksonville doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to happenin’ downtowns. While I live in the largest city [land mass wise] in the country, Jacksonville is still very much a work in progress when it comes to developing downtown.
My first week of work at City Hall, disbelief hit me like a slap across the face.
“Concrete jungle where dreams are made of…
These streets will make you feel brand new. Big lights will inspire you.”
Downtown Jacksonville is no New York City, Miami or LA. And to be honest, I’m glad. My aspirations have shifted over the years exploring many of the country’s largest hubs. I’ve come to realize my perfect fit is a bit less overwhelming. Maybe it’s growing up in Cleveland and being comfortable with that city’s size. If I could pick up Chicago and drop it on top of Jacksonville’s location, I’d have created paradise.
But downtown Jacksonville is actually catching me a little off-guard. My first week, every day around noon, my co-workers of young professionals started rounding up the troops to take our lunch break. Now, a lunch break is a pretty foreign concept to me transitioning from television news to public affairs. In TV, we rarely found time to take a bathroom break. Lunch was unheard of. So I was excited as we headed out to grab some food. I figured Quiznos or Subway was on the agenda. In my experience, those were really the only options to eat downtown. My opinion of the urban core was lackluster bars [maybe three in all] and a bunch of empty, abandoned buildings.
Was I ever wrong.
My first week on the job, we dined at cafes, museums, trendy soup shops and a Thai joint to die for. I was blown away by the number of options. Anyone coming from a larger city would still likely call the selection a bit lame. But for a girl with very low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised.
The other thing I noticed, but never expected, was the number of other young professionals walking to and from their own meals. I am in no way talking downtown Pittsburgh crowds. But, there were people. The streets weren’t deserted as I’d assumed they would be. And in that moment, one word came to mind.
Jacksonville has some serious work to do. But I think for the first time, the city is positioned to do it. As a reporter, I’d done plenty of stories about groups setting their sights on downtown; prepared to make a game plan; prepared to revitalize it. And I have actually seen some progress. Many of these groups are composed of young professionals. Some of them are even Jacksonville implants just like me. We know what we want out of our downtown because we’ve lived and breathed it in other places. And we crave it here, too.
It was then I realized I’d just uncovered a new passion. A new goal to work toward. A way that I can continue making a difference in my community. Part of me worried giving up reporting that I would no longer have a way to make an impact; would no longer feel like my daily work was changing lives. A good friend and former co-worker, who has since moved away from Jacksonville to report in a new city, asked me last week about my new job, and if I felt like I was still leaving a mark through my work. That’s something that was so tangible in my former career. And it’s why I loved it so much.
Now, I know that is something I can continue to do for my community. I’ve been evaluating the various downtown redevelopment groups to figure out which one may be a good fit for me to become a part of. I have some great ideas I’d love to contribute. I would so enjoy brainstorming with like-minded people and finding ways to take Jacksonville to the next level. I’m really excited thinking about it. Groups like these were never something I had time for in my old job. I can’t wait to get started. And I can’t wait to have an impact on my city, in a new way.