Nov 21, 2013

Arts groups, Sons of Confederate Vets wrangle over future of Jacksonville armory

Maggie FitzRoy
Correspondent- Jacksonville Business Journal

A coalition of four Jacksonville art-based nonprofits want to turn The Armory Building at the northeast corner of State and Market Streets into a central arts hub for the city.

But they’re not the only ones with plans for the building. The Sons of the Confederate Veterans, Kirby-Smith Camp 1209 — an organization of direct descendants of Confederate soldiers — wants to lease the empty historic building from the city for meetings, events and history exhibits.

City Council member Kimberly Daniels has introduced a bill to approve a license agreement between the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the city. She plans to discuss it with Council President Bill Gulliford at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The bill would authorize the Sons group to restore and manage the building for ten years, with two five-year renewal options, for a license fee of $1 a year. The group would agree to make immediate, necessary repairs, restore and maintain the facility, and mow and insure the property.

Art hub supporters plan to attend that meeting and are urging supporters to join them.

Daniels’ aide said Wednesday that the councilwoman would be available to talk Thursday. However, on Thursday morning, the aide said she would have no comment.

Representatives from the Sons of Confederate Veterans could not be reached for comment.

Nearby residents have made their voices heard about the fate of the armory before: A year ago, when the city discussed turning the 88,000-square-foot historic landmark into a homeless center, resident outcry led to the idea being jettisoned.

Now, they are throwing their support behind the ARTery idea, said Springfield Preservation and Restoration President Bill Hoff. "The residents and business owners of Springfield are going to let the city council know this is an idea the community will be very enthusiastic about," he said.

The coalition consisting of The Jacksonville Centre of the Arts, The Art League of Jacksonville, The Art Center Cooperative, and The Performers Academy want to turn the property into a cultural destination featuring visual and performing arts, galleries, studio space for artists, and community educational opportunities.

Investing in the arts also "makes for a more attractive metropolitan area for tourists," said Kathryn McAvoy, executive director of The Performers Academy. "It would attract tourists and businesses to move to and invest in the city. It would be a good investment."

The arts groups all have space elsewhere in the city, and are looking at the armory because they all need additional space. The building has a stage that could be renovated and wooden floors that would be good for dancers, McAvoy said. "There’s tons of room," she said.

The armory was built in 1915 to house the National Guard of Florida. The Gothic-Revival style building has a drill hall and auditorium and used to be a major community center and the city’s principal public facility for social events, including a speech by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The building, which has a basement and first and second floors, needs extensive renovations, which the city has estimated would cost about $9 million, McAvoy said. The basement floods, but McAvoy said they are not aware of serious mold problems.

The coalition believes the building could be renovated for less than the city estimates, and has a plan to do it in three phases while raising funds.

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