The Rail Yard District Business Council:
Organizing Businesses for Economic Growth and Community Benefit
By: James Capraro, Joel Bookman and James Coggin
Jacksonville’s (JAX) New Town community and Beaver Street Industrial Corridor are two contiguous neighborhoods located immediately to the west of downtown.
In 2009, former Mayor John Peyton partnered with the Jacksonville Children’s Commission, local philanthropic leaders, the historic African American anchor institution Edward Waters College, LISC, and HabiJax (JAX’s highly productive and celebrated local Habitat for Humanity affiliate) to create the New Town Success Zone (NTSZ).
Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, the NTSZ sought to enhance the lives of New Town’s children by generating a range of new opportunities. NTSZ, with its partners, also launched a comprehensive community revitalization effort. From 2011 to 2016, the most prodigious partner, HabiJax, realized strong housing outcomes, building and selling over 300 homes, completing 190 home repair projects and raising and investing over $16 million in the revitalization of New Town.
Local leaders were hopeful that economic development efforts might result in similar success. Their economic development strategy sought to revive the community’s Kings Road commercial corridor, which had experienced severe decline over several decades. In 2014, LISC JAX commissioned a MetroEdge study performed by Joel Bookman and Larisa Ortiz. While the MetroEdge analysis offered some strategies for small business development and improvement along Kings Road, its most significant finding was that the strength of formidable retail competitors a mere 9 minutes away coupled with New Town’s low income levels and low density did not bode well for the return of Kings Road as a vibrant, community-supported, retail corridor. There was however a collateral discovery that could/would prove to be an economic development “game changer”.
The “Discovery” – Hiding in Plain Sight!
Adjacent to New Town to the south and west of downtown lies the Beaver Street Industrial Corridor. Driving through the 100+-year-old corridor leaves most unimpressed. It’s totally lacking curbside appeal. Many older buildings seem in need of a facelift. The district is littered with vacant structures. The terms “old and run-down” would not be an exaggeration when describing the current common perception of the Beaver Street Industrial District.
As part of the MetroEdge research Joel Bookman sought to learn about the corridor through conversations with a few of its businesses. Joel quickly learned that the outward appearance belied the strength of local businesses. The MetroEdge analysis shifted focus to measure the strength of this corridor. It found that in 2016, this sleepy, unsung and somewhat forgotten Beaver Street Industrial Corridor was home to:
- 346 businesses
- An aggregate base of 6,289 employees
- Businesses with more than $2.6 billion in annual sales
Like most cities, the prevalent economic development wisdom in many corners of Jacksonville centers around the acquisition/expansion of Amazon warehouse facilities, or the development of destination retail and high-end housing to the east of downtown near the Jacksonville Jaguar’s stadium, TIAA Bank Field. The strength of the Beaver Street corridor exceeds the economic yield that such projects promise. Its discovery has surprised many. And, from a LISC perspective, this “find” could not be in a better location – right next door to New Town.
The Threefold Challenge
Despite strong economic metrics this corridor presented a three-fold challenge:
- Could this geography that contains a wide array of disparate businesses become organized into a cohesive force that would advocate for the district’s common good and support both individual businesses and the stability and growth of the district as a whole?
- When organized, would the district partner with the New Town Success Zone to support economic advancement for their neighbors to the north and others needing the income benefits that industry jobs would provide?
- Could a system be put in place that would assist New Town residents and others to become members of the “employment-ready” labor supply needed by their business neighbors?
(Industrial District) Organizing – Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
In the summer of 2016 LISC JAX engaged Joel Bookman and Jim Capraro to work with Beaver Street District businesses to begin the organizing process. LISC JAX Program Officer James Coggin joined with Bookman and Capraro to form the business engagement team. They met with local businesses to understand their status and test their willingness to create a new industrial business organization.
Using the deep relationships that had been nurtured over decades by LISC Executive Director Janet Owens and the LISC JAX Local Advisory Board, the team gained entry to 40 businesses.
To engage and recruit businesses into the organizing process, the team used the technique of active listening. “Listening and only listening” (as in: not pitching) generated an understanding of each of the businesses, including their current state, aspirations, and challenges. During several interviews, the roles were reversed, as representatives of businesses questioned the LISC team about topics such as expansion, growth, labor needs, infrastructure concerns, available financing, and zoning constraints.
Fortunately, LISC had created a team that could respond to business inquiries in a meaningful way:
- Joel Bookman, an urban planner and community developer, previously directed an SBA 503 Local Development Corporation (LDC) and had singlehandedly packaged more business loans than any of his peers in Chicago at the time.
- Jim Capraro, a community organizer and community developer, also directed an SBA 503 LDC and organized Chicago’s Greater Southwest Industrial Corridor – home to over 400 businesses ranging from small firms to Industrial giants such as Tootsie Roll, Solo Cup, and Nabisco.
- James Coggin, a former non-profit homebuilder proficient in packaging and building community revitalization real estate projects within the Jacksonville market. James also possesses knowledge of, and relationships within Jacksonville government, lending, and construction sectors.
Combined, the team had experience with a wide array of topics and instruments that would prove meaningful to businesses when discussing topics such as:
- Tax Increment Financing
- Soil pollution testing and remediation processes
- HUD Section 108 Loan Guarantees
- Zoning and zoning overlays
- Business licensing
These and similar topics were discussed by local businesses. The conversations built trust between the LISC team and businesses as it convinced them that engaging in a relationship with the team and their neighboring companies would prove meaningful to them.
As discussions ensued, the need to organize became clear. Several common issues could better (perhaps only) be confronted through joint action. These included:
- Addressing deteriorated and inadequate infrastructure
- Overcoming zoning constraints
- Negative perceptions of the district and the benefits of creating a common marketing and promotion strategy
- Identifying and developing local sources of supply
- Creating “district” relationships with critical government agencies and elected officials
Unique Nature of Corridor Businesses
The team observed that the Beaver Street Corridor contained businesses with three distinct attributes:
- Longstanding, strong, and growing large businesses, providing the backbone of the Beaver Street “Export Economic Engine.” Here are two examples:
- Beaver Street Fisheries, which started as a seafood retail stand 60 years ago, now operates as an importer, manufacturer, and distributor of quality frozen seafood, sourcing products from the USA and around the world. Their Sea Best® retail frozen seafood brand is available at major grocers such as Walmart throughout the country.
- Load King has designed, fabricated, delivered, and installed retail store display and operations packages in over 8,500 stores. Their customers include Starbucks, AMC Movie Theaters, Einstein Bros. Bagels, TCBY (The Country’s Best Yogurt), and Mrs. Fields.
- Innovative retail businesses were repurposing formerly obsolete warehouse spaces for new, creative uses in growing market sectors. Here are four instances:
- Eco-Relics uses a formerly vacant 100,000 sq. ft. warehouse to store and sell architectural salvage, reclaimed and discounted building materials and antiques. Eco-Relics draws customers from Atlanta to Miami.
- Engine 15 Brewing Company converted two formerly vacant Pittsburgh Plate Glass warehouses into two new production/retail uses: The Engine 15 Brewery and Taproom in one building and the Glass Factory banquet facility in the second building.
- Peterbrooke Chocolatier, also boasting a trade area from Atlanta to Miami, has renovated a former bacon processing plant into a space to manufacture chocolate products, operate a wholesale store, and conduct public tours.
- The Beaver Street Commissary repurposed a formerly vacant warehouse and filling station as a commissary/industrial kitchen used by forty-five food trucks servicing consumers throughout Jacksonville.
- The businesses within this corridor are extremely “civic-minded”.
- Load King has routinely purchased foreclosed homes in the surrounding neighborhood and donated the properties to HabiJax. Load King also purchased an adjacent vacant warehouse and donated the space to ReThreaded, a non-profit that employs survivors of human trafficking in making gifts within its donated space.
- Beaver Street Fisheries operates the oldest and largest farmers market in Northeast Florida as an eleemosynary venture. This market attracts consumers from throughout the greater Jacksonville region
Organizing: A Council “Tipping Point” - Engaged Business Leaders Become Engagers
Throughout the interviews, several commonly held themes emerged: support for business expansion, increasing local supply vendors, accessing a readily employable labor pool; and, concerns such as deteriorating and inadequate infrastructure, negative district perceptions, and the hazardous condition of vacant property were raised repeatedly – concerns that could not readily be addressed by any business alone.
The need to organize a Business District Council became “self-evident” to Beaver Street business leaders. At this point, the leaders who had become engaged eagerly accepted the responsibility to reach out to others within the district. They organized the first district wide convening in May 2017.
Come Together, Right Now, Over “We”.
Joel Bookman & Jim Capraro facilitating Rail Yard District businesses identifying priorities.
At the first district convening the original cadre of engaged business leaders presented the case for organizing an industrial business council. A facilitated discussion identified the priorities that would become the work of the council. These priorities were organized into four committees:
- Governance – formation (incorporating the new council)
- Business to Business (B2B) relationships
Throughout 2017 and into 2018 quarterly district convenings took place, each attracting more attendees than the last. Steady progress was made as the committees attended to their tasks.
The Birth of a Council
With strong support from LISC and Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA), the newly incorporated Industrial District Business Council was established and celebrated in June of 2018. The governance committee also applied for and received an IRS 501(c)(3) tax-emption status.
The marketing committee rebranded the area as the “Rail Yard District” – in recognition of the creation of the CSX railyard over 100 years ago that caused this clustering of manufacturers and warehouses.
At the June 2018 celebratory convening, LISC JAX Executive Director, Janet Owens was declared “The Godmother of the Rail Yard.”
Working for Rail Yard Businesses and the New Town Community
Now that the Rail Yard District Business District Council (RYDBC) has been established, its leaders are busy creating new relationships and working to fulfill their priorities. LISC has provided staffing through the placement of an AmeriCorps volunteer to serve as RYDBC’s District Engagement Coordinator.
The Infrastructure Committee is identifying road, viaduct, and transportation improvements sought by area businesses.
The Marketing Committee is partnering with the Farmers Market in its “Moon Over the Market” promotion to increase customer traffic and increase awareness about the Rail Yard District.
Regular District meetings are growing B2B relationships among business members.
LISC staff members are meeting with business owners to offer financing alternatives to those considering expansion.
And, ever true to their good natured civic mindedness, the leadership of the Rail Yard District is beginning to plan its first job fair in cooperation with the New Town Success Zone and LISC’s newly established Financial Opportunity Center in the heart of New Town.
This is only the beginning; so, stay tuned to this channel.[i]
 Data sourced by Obsidian Services from Infogroup, November 2016
for Bookman Associates, Inc., Capraro Consulting Services & LISC Jacksonville
[i]About the authors:
Joel Bookman is a community revitalization consultant and an award winning Urban Planner, a CDC Executive Director for 25 years, and Chicago LISC’s Director of Programs for 9 years.
Jim Capraro is a community revitalization consultant. He worked as a community organizer on the national campaigns to pass the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, and The Community Reinvestment act and served as an industry recognized CDC Executive Director for 35 years.
James Coggin came to develop housing for a Jacksonville CDC as a LISC Americorp volunteer after having served in the construction Industry. He then ascended to become a housing developer for that CDC and currently serves as Jacksonville LISC Program Officer.