The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is in the midst of a $175 million interchange enhancement project at I-295 and I-95.Thanks to taxes generated from major employers in the area, the Jacksonville International Airport Community Redevelopment Agency (JIA CRA) has funded additional enhancements to the Cole Road Bridge, that is scheduled to be rebuilt by the FDOT within the I-295/I-95 interchange project. These improvements will add a ‘Jacksonville’ sign and associated uplighting along the bridge, a protected bike lane across the bridge and a sidewalk on each side of the bridge that is separated from the roadway by a concrete barrier.

The view of the Cole Road Bridge traveling Northbound on I-95. This overpass will soon greet drivers with a large ‘Jacksonville’ sign that will span the length of the bridge.

In 1990, the City of Jacksonville created the Jacksonville International Airport Community Redevelopment Agency (JIA CRA) to help spur business creation and employment opportunities, and thereby expanding the City’s tax base, within a 14,245-acre area in Northwest Jacksonville near the airport.

This map illustrates the boundaries of the JIA CRA.

CRAs are commonly used by municipalities to fund activities that drive development and job creation in blighted areas. They work through the use of tax increment financing. When a CRA is established, all property taxes collected at that time within the CRA area establish a ‘frozen value.’ The City still keeps all property taxes collected up to that frozen value to be used throughout the city, however any new property taxes collected in the future that exceed that frozen value are kept within a separate fund that is then spent only on projects within the CRA’s boundaries.

Let’s say that the Riverside neighborhood became a CRA in 2019. In the 2019 fiscal year, Riverside generated $20 million in property taxes. If in 2020, property tax revenue rose in Riverside to $21 million- then $20 million would be directed to the City’s general fund and the additional $1million would be used to upgrade sidewalks, build new sewer lines or incentivize businesses to open within Riverside. That additional $1 million can only be spent to enhance Riverside. The thought is, as Riverside improves- additional development generated would further enhance the area and that extra tax revenue is then leveraged to increase even more private redevelopment in the area. Jacksonville currently has five CRAs- two of which are located Downtown (one for the Northbank, and another for the Southbank).

The JIA CRA has total yearly tax increment revenues of over $11 million. These funds have been used in the past to help construct the River City Marketplace shopping center, replace a bridge along Harts Road and even to help attract major employers such as Amazon and Mercedes Benz to build large distribution facilities and create jobs within Northwest Jacksonville. Economic development officials see the JIA CRA as a success story. When the CRA was established, 41% of the housing within the district was substandard while 54% of the land was vacant or ‘underutilized’. By 2015, those numbers were reduced to 2.2% and 15.1%, respectively.

According the developer, Ramco-Gershenson Properties, River City Marketplace is strategically located at the interchange of I-95 and Airport Road, just north of I-295 and is the largest shopping complex in the north Jacksonville market. The shopping center opened in 2006 and today features twelve national anchor tenants and encompasses approximately 1,000,000 square feet, including anchor-owned space. River City Marketplace is located at the first commercial exit along I-95 as people enter Florida from Georgia, benefiting from the heavy tourism between the two states. Plans to develop this site first began in 1988. Proposed ventures such as the Main Street Mall, Duval North Commerce Center and later the First Coast Center never broke ground. Liberty Development Corp and Ramco Gershenson did finally break ground on the River City Marketplace in 2005, buoyed by an initial incentive package valued at $16 million for the construction of Max Leggett Parkway and property tax break called a REV grant.

UF Health North opened its outpatient medical complex in February 2015. The hospital sits on land to the North of River City Marketplace at River City Crossing. River City Crossing, a $34 million mixed use development, received a $1.75 million REV grant and an additional $200,000 infrastructure grant to expand the development footprint that was spurred the 2006 opening of River City Marketplace.

Mercedes-Benz USA opened a 500,000 square foot distribution facility at the International Trade Port in 2010. The facility initially employed more than 100 people working in regional sales operations, a parts distribution center, a quality evaluation center and a learning and performance center. In 2016, $64,800 in local incentives were approved from the JIA CRA so that the company could move its engineering services division from New Jersey, adding 50 additional employees at the Jacksonville facility.

The JIA CRA’s governing board currently has $5,646,772 in unallocated funds that can be used to fund infrastructure projects throughout the area, such as providing pedestrian linkages (sidewalks, bike lanes, etc) or providing utilities, streetscape improvements, parking and landscaping improvements to complement and service new development. The Cole Road Bridge Project will allocate $2.8 million from these funds, in order to fund the aforementioned additional enhancements to the reconstruction of the Cole Road Bridge.

Future improvements to the Cole Road Bridge will include the addition of sidewalks and bike lanes.

Many are familiar with the large ‘Jacksonville’ sign within the Bartram Park area, often referred to as the ‘Southern Gateway’ to Jacksonville. That sign was paid for through a little understood financing arrangement that uses long-term bond debt that is paid back by future homeowners and commercial property owners within new housing communities. The Dodson family, through their development company Eastland, created the Bartram Park DRI (Development of Regional Impact) in 2000- a 3,928-acre mixed use development permitted for up to 9,700 residential units, 1.3 million square feet of commercial development, 1.7 million square feet of office development and 300 hotel rooms. In contrast to a CRA, in which a government entity directs incremental tax revenues to incentive new development projects, Bartram Park is considered a Community Development District (CDD).

An aerial view of the Bartram Park DRI, via Eastland.

CDDs are special-purpose legal entities used to construct and finance infrastructure for large housing developments. Tax-free bonds are issued to construct the infrastructure needed (think sewers, water lines, roads, and the like) to construct these housing communities. These bonds are paid back by CDD fees assessed to homeowners who purchase homes within these developments. CDD fees are charged over and above the homeowner’s property taxes. Developers are able to defer a significant portion of the upfront costs to construct supporting infrastructure, and potential homeowners are introduced to new housing options which in theory costs less as these upfront costs have not been built into the cost to purchase said home- they will pay these costs over time instead (most tax-free bonds are payable over a 10-30 year period). The theory is that the CDD structure allows for the construction of needed new housing in an affordable manner, that would not otherwise have been built if the totality of all development costs were to be paid upfront and out-of-pocket.

After several of these entities bottomed out during the real estate crash between 2007-2009, CDDs are not as common for new developments in Florida as they once were. However it is interesting to note that The District proposed on the former JEA Southside Generating Station property on Downtown’s Southbank will be structured as a CDD- which is not surprising given that the principals of that project have largely made careers from developing large DRI projects with the use of CDDs throughout Florida.

Drivers traveling Southbound on I-95 will be welcomed to Jacksonville’s ‘Northern Gateway’ with a new ‘Jacksonville’ sign installed upon this overpass at Cole Road.

Regardless of the financing mechanisms used, the ‘Northern Gateway’ to Jacksonville will soon welcome motorists with a bold new sign delineating their entrance into our city. For a town that long welcomed southbound motorists with the stench of paper mills, a nice sign and clean-smelling air will signify a new, modern era for the Bold New City of the South.