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9.01.2011

Picture This, Jacksonville

Imagine a major metropolitan area in Florida that took full advantage of its greatest resources: its diversity of human capital and its rich natural resources.

Imagine a place where people had a genuine mutual respect for one another--where they operated under the golden rule in their daily interactions, regardless of age, race, economic status, religious background or ethnicity.

Imagine a place carved from an ecosystem teeming with wildlife and with some of the greatest access to the natural world in all of the United States of America. Imagine a place with some of the finest fishing on the planet, with some of the best golf courses in North America, with miles and miles of pristine beach.

Imagine a place filled with colorful history. Imagine a place that is home to first-rate museums, a wonderful zoo, beautiful botanical gardens, dozens of state and national parks, and the largest municipal parks system in the United States.

Imagine a place where the community supported education. Imagine a place where our teachers were given autonomy to teach a curriculum unbound, at least partially, to standardized testing. Imagine a place that respected its public servants, and where parents instilled in their children a desire to strive for a station in life that surpasses their own.

Imagine a safe place for everyone. Imagine a place where folks could make a living wage without the need for a college education, where the citizens could work for companies that were successful enough to give their employees access to dentists and doctors.

That place could be Jacksonville, but it's not.

This community is blessed with some of the greatest fundamental assets of any place I've ever been, and I lived in Colorado and Oregon prior to moving here in 2005. Those are two places that have recognized the wealth of opportunity they have, and they've capitalized on it. We have many wonderful advantages here, but will we ever harness the community will to capitalize on them?

Fifteen people have been shot in Jacksonville in the last four days. Four have died as a result of the shootings, including an unborn child, and a toddler is now fighting for his life in the hospital. A witches' brew of circumstances has certainly contributed to the sorrowful place in which our city now finds itself: unemployment, a lack of education, a diffusion of weapons among young people, a lack of viable opportunities for our new college graduates.

It's a real shame, this sense of community nihilism.

My wife works as a counselor at Forrest High School, where she puts in long hours helping students achieve success and move toward college. There are many like her, and yet the dropout rate in Duval County is a staggering 30% (and that number takes into account some generous accounting). Many of the kids lack parental involvement and stable home lives.

I encourage our school board, our educational leaders and our public safety community to work hard to hold parents accountable for truant children. We have viable after-school programs for our kids, but we need more. Many of the sports we no longer fund (because our tax basis faltered, and the decreased revenues led to cuts in education and extracurricular activities) kept kids occupied and working toward concrete goals.

I hope, as the federal government works to re-think the "No Child Left Behind" legislation, that our educational leaders will devise a plan that recognizes testing as the important tool it is, but doesn't make it the greatest measure of a person's ability to learn and execute fundamental skills. In Oregon, the educational system had specific testing benchmarks, but the emphasis for students was on developing critical thinking skills, using technology effectively and focusing on effective communication skills.

I work with around one hundred students every term here at Florida State College. These are intelligent people with strong fundamental academic skills. They are hungry to learn, and they are taking advantage of the great opportunities that our state has to offer in higher education.

But my students are in the extreme minority. We have one of the least expensive higher education systems in America (I believe we rank #49 in total cost for in-state tuition). We also have one of the best, in terms of value and practicality. The problem here is the disconnection between high school preparation and ascension to college. Our students, for various reasons, are dropping out of school at such an alarming rate that they never even see this great opportunity as a realistic option. Our city and educational leaders must work with families in disadvantaged communities to stress the value of education and push for lifelong learning. We need to take advantage of VPK in these areas and re-think our approach to siphoning the best students from our struggling schools and sending them to our best magnet schools. This practice only exacerbates the problems of the haves and the have-nots.

Jacksonville is beautiful. I'm thankful that our community doesn't subscribe to the saccharine, insincere cultural make-up of Disneyfied Orlando, or the pumped-up, cosmetic nature of South Florida. The people here are sincere and refreshingly unpretentious. And we should use that cultural ethos as part of our pitch to capitalize on tourism.

If I'm Mayor Brown, whom I admire and voted for, then I work with my economic development team to apply for every federal dollar available to develop Jacksonville as a destination spot for folks looking to revel in "Old Florida."

I'm working to first find federal money, and then work with community leaders to venture into places like Brooklyn, where folks are out of work; I'm taking that money and giving them jobs working on our finest natural assets. I get the Palms Fish Camp up and running and I work with the St. Johns Riverkeeper to keep our waters clean and I identify other city properties for tourist development.

I put my butt on the plane and I pitch Jacksonville to every major community in America. Come here for our history, our climate, our cuisine, our friendly people, our beaches, our fishing and our sporting activities! I get businesses to locate on the waterfront in downtown, taking tourists out on the St. Johns and into the creeks for birding and shrimping and fishing.

We live in a paradox. This place has such great advantages, and such a staggering disregard for those very things. I experienced a perfect metaphor for this earlier today. I was headed out to the St. Johns to do a little kayaking and fishing. There I was, enjoying the view of the brackish marshes, when a tricked-out Monte Carlo cuts me off, rolls down the window and empties an ash tray at forty miles an hour. It looks like a comet tail, all that foul garbage. Then, at 9:30 in the morning, the passenger throws three empty cans of Busch into the grass on the side of Merrill Road. Those cans will likely end up in the river.

Why? Because some people simply don't care.

This is the greatest task that we who care about this place face. How do we get others to buy in? How do we overcome this cultural nihilism that seems to pervade our city?

The stakes are too great not to try, but when I read about the things that happened this week in Brooklyn and I see egrets stalking minnows in shallows filled with floating garbage, I become discouraged, and that's no way to live...

Updated: I received a few e-mails on where I put in. The cul-de-sac on Ginhouse Creek...

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