Jacksonville: 'Small city' gets big

December 02, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- You ask why Jacksonville? Read the sign in a downtown antique store here: "If You Believe It, They Will Come. . . . We Believe! NFL."

This is a city that without self-consciousness puts the words "passion" and "football" in the same sentence, that talks about itself as a "hot market."

This is the little city -- relative to the other contenders in the National Football League expansion derby -- that thought it could and did -- much to its own surprise.

Jacksonville was speaking in exclamation points yesterday. They're everywhere here, punctuation shouting about the NFL. The ownership group is called Touchdown Jacksonville! Ltd. The ticket sale campaign was called NFL Now! The sign at an airport hotel flashes, "TD Jax Scores! Welcome NFL!"

And the headline in yesterday's newspaper was: "YES!!"

Last night, tens of thousands of people came to the Gator Bowl to marvel. They've begun to call Jacksonville "Wayne's World" in honor of J. Wayne Weaver, the new team's majority owner. Even to the most passionate fans, the victory was still unreal.

What did Conrad Dove, a 22-year-old college student, think when he heard the news Tuesday afternoon? A look of awe flickers across his face. "Oh, man," he says in a near whisper.

"Even the newscasters were stunned," said Una Pardue, a Jaguars ticket manager.

Yesterday, in the celebratory frenzy, those newscasters were paying tribute to everybody -- even, amazing as this sounds to Baltimore, to Colts owner Robert Irsay. Five years before stealing off to Indianapolis with the Colts, Mr. Irsay talked football with Jacksonville officials. He was the first owner to take the Sun Belt city seriously.

Local TV stations replayed the scene of his 1979 helicopter landing at the Gator Bowl while 50,000 fans cheered and the scoreboards flashed, "Jacksonville Colts."

Eventually, Mr. Irsay passed Jacksonville by, but yesterday he was remembered as a patron saint of the city's football movement. "He's a friend of ours," said Thomas Petway, a business executive who has spent six years campaigning for a team. "He kicked all this off by coming here in 1979."

Jacksonville's quest was nearly scuttled as recently as August, when the ownership group and the city disagreed on lease terms.

Carl Cannon, publisher of the Florida Times-Union, then began playing mediator, shuttling messages between Mayor Ed Austin and Mr. Weaver.

"We were pretty much down-and-out dead," Mr. Cannon said. "If we got back in it and failed, it would be awful."

But the city jumped back into the chase, selling $75 million worth of club seat tickets in 10 days to meet the NFL deadline.

'Civic pride'

"We made this happen," Mr. Cannon said. "We stood up and said, 'We're going to do this.' We have civic pride."

What we have here is a city that says it's first-rate -- but privately worries that the rest of the world doesn't agree. It's a medium-sized city on a wide gray river with freight trains rattling across it. A city where the CSX headquarters, late of Baltimore, looms over the waterfront. A city with a Harborplace clone, the Rouse-built Jacksonville Landing, whose riverside pavilions look and even smell like the bigger, prettier Baltimore version.

Over the years, following Mr. Irsay's lead, several other football owners traveled to Jacksonville, but none settled down.

"We got left at the altar many times," said Adam Herbert, president of the University of North Florida and chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, who helped lead the fight for the Jaguars. "But in the process, a lot of the owners got to see Jacksonville."

So, while many in Baltimore spent the day talking about getting past the disappointment, people were standing in line in Jacksonville for hourly shipments of Jacksonville Jaguar T-shirts.

"We need this for our national image," said John Delaney, Mayor Austin's chief of staff. "We have in the past been beholden to naysayers."

Ah, yes, negativism, the mind set that Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer is always warning against. "We had to quit saying no, quit saying we can't do it," Mr. Delaney said. "In the past, we've held ourselves back. Not this time."

This time, the Jacksonville boosters hung in. The other cities had flaws. Jacksonville, they reasoned, was a growing market, the kind of place NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue loves.

'You know," Mr. Delaney said, "when corporations want to relocate, they look at what a city has to offer. Basically, that's what the NFL did. It went down a corporate relocation checklist. And they chose Jacksonville."

There are some heretics, Jacksonville residents who don't believe that spending all this time and money and civic energy on football is in the city's best interest.

Take City Councilman Harry Reagan. The Gator Bowl will be taken down starting Jan. 1 and rebuilt, by Camden Yards architects HOK, over a 20-month period with $121 million from the city.

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