Hemming Park transforming cynics one event at a time

Hemming Park transforming cynics one event at a time
Anyone for a pickup game of chess or checkers? Passive activities are available in Hemming Park every day beginning at 10 a.m.

In 1857, two public parks were created that today that have served eight generations of citizens. One, famously known, is Central Park in New York City.

The other was a forgotten treasure until about a year ago: Hemming Park, originally known as City Park, renamed St. James Park in 1869 and then in 1899 again renamed Hemming Park in honor of Civil War veteran Charles C. Hemming. In 1977, the park was converted into a brick and concrete square and renamed Hemming Plaza in its 120th year.

For years the only color in Hemming Plaza came from established trees and vegetation. Now Hemming Park is a whimsical, colorful place to spend time downtown.

For years the only color in Hemming Plaza came from established trees and vegetation. Now Hemming Park is a whimsical, colorful place to spend time downtown.

Thanks to legislation enacted in August 2104, Jacksonville’s oldest public park was given a new opportunity to appeal to another generation of citizens.

With $1 million in city funds and another quarter million to be raised through private funding, the Friends of Hemming Park began a venture that had more than its share of skeptics and cynics: “…transform the plaza into a green urban gathering space to serve as the epicenter of the revitalization of Jacksonville.”

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy getting green.

“Perception has been a huge challenge for us,” said Vince Cavin, executive director of Friends of Hemming Park. “We want people to know that Hemming Park is a great, safe place.”

First came a general clean-up and that included a plan for humanely dealing with vagrants, homeless people and seemingly purposeless bench sitters. Part of the budget is used to pay for park ambassadors, including a social services coordinator who connects with the homeless to help find jobs, housing and mental-health referral services.

FOHP has worked steadily since late last fall to change those negative perceptions, enlisting nearby Sweet Pete’s to start an initiative to tell the story that Downtown is a family-friendly place to make it a day out.

“Go to the library, visit MOCA, have lunch at The Candy Apple Café at Sweet Pete’s…and spend time in the park,” said Cavin, a resident of Riverside.

Murray Hill resident Sarah Collins is marketing and community outreach director for FOHP and works closely with Riverside resident Liz Grebe, events and programming director, to come up with attractive programming, both active and passive, that ensures that something is going on in Hemming Park every day.

“Nothing’s been done here for a long time but once people get here they can see the difference,” Collins said. “We’re trying to get people to just come to park and see that it’s not the same park as it was a year ago. Just come out for lunch Monday to Friday. There is stuff going on all the time but people can make it what they want it to be.”

Measuring success

In addition to committing to raising $250,000 in private funds – and FOHP is at 90 percent of the August 2015 goal – the group must also schedule at least five special events per quarter that draw attendance of 500 or more people.

Sarah Collins, Friends of Hemming Park Marketing Director, Vince Cavin, Executive Director

Sarah Collins, Friends of Hemming Park Marketing Director, Vince Cavin, Executive Director

Gastrofest is one example of a successful special event that was also a “perfect marriage” with FOHP.

“They didn’t have the capital to front the cash for the alcohol, but they had the idea and a lot of the relationships in the community and wanted to do it in Hemming Park,” said Cavin. “We had the money to put it together and the team was ready. That’s like a perfect marriage of what we can do when we come together with a good idea.”

Even on days when there are no crowd-drawing events, park usage has increased substantially and the demographics have improved as well.

“From being a walk-through park with 20-30 people on average, we have a couple hundred here every day, with lunch ticket sales about 100,” Cavin said. “One of the ambassadors’ job duties is to take a demographic sample several times a day. We’re close to a 50-50 male-female mix, which is representative of the general population. Before it was 90 percent men.”

The park management group still has a long way to go, including putting a plan in place to guarantee sustainability. Cavin said they are seeking sponsors for naming rights in four areas: Wi-Fi and charging stations; the Reading Room; the Kids’ Zone, and the main stage.

“We’re looking for four major sponsors, we call them the Founding Friends, at $50,000 a year for five years,” said Cavin. “We want sponsors who say ‘I want support Downtown and that this project is important to revitalization.’”

He also welcomes in-kind support, equipment sponsorships, grants, and event sponsors.

“The biggest thing is figuring out sustainability and that will take good grant opportunities and sponsorships and the right kind of concessions and partnerships,” he said.

Collins added, “We’re programming towards sustainability with large events throughout the year, doing regular programming and the passive programming to get people in the park to showcase its versatility and get people to re-define what they think of Hemming Park.”

Hemming Park is also learning to be a good neighbor to surrounding businesses.

“Reception from nearby merchants has been excellent. As far as I know everybody really loves what we’re doing,” said Cavin. “We’ve changed the front door for MOCA and the library.”

He noted that after the Jazz Festival last month the manager at Chamblin’s said they made 60 percent better sales than in an average week. “Their sales are great when we have things in the park,” he said. “They also sell products similar to ours but there’s so much more foot traffic that we can share in the success.”

Although there’s still some hesitation on the sponsorship side to see if the change is real, and if it is going to last, Cavin said “Now we have some proof of success. It’s just getting that word out there.”

Hemming Park unveils new mural



Terrarium is the name of Shaun Thurston’s newest mural.

Shaun Thurston, a Riverside artist, spent more than three months “wrapping” Hemming Park’s on-site storage area in a 154-foot mural, which was unveiled on May 28. The artwork was commissioned by the Friends of Hemming Park, and Preston Haskell, Bill Prescott and the Dalton Agency.

The mural is one of the park’s partnerships with local artists to reinvent Hemming Park as a modern, urban space. Other artist partnerships include RouxArts’ Let’s Tile Hemming project and the “For Brian” musical installation recently added to the kids’ area of the park by artist Robert Noelke.

By Kate A. Hallock

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