Business association seeks to rebrand Philips corridor as San Marco East

Business association seeks to rebrand Philips corridor as San Marco East
Aerial view of the Philips Highway corridor stretching from Emerson Street to the Atlantic Boulevard interchange with I-95 which comprises the area covered by the San Marco East Business Association.

It’s been called Jacksonville’s “Miracle Mile” and more recently by locals, “Hooker Highway,” the northernmost stretch of US-1/Philips Highway, between Emerson Road and Atlantic Boulevard. But if a growing group of Philips Highway business owners have their way, the section of Philips Highway that lies between I-95 and the railroad tracks may soon be called by a different moniker – San Marco East.

Led by Bryan Croft, owner of Holmes Custom, Mathew Hugo of Hugo’s Interiors, and Jeff Rosen of Chance Partners, 16 business owners representing 13 Philips Highway companies have banded together to form a new alliance, the San Marco East Business Association.

Along with Croft, Hugo and Rosen, at present the members of the new business association include Steve Fernandez, Croft’s partner at Holmes Custom; Craig, Alex and Michael Meek of Meek Companies; Brad Correia of Crown Pools; Ken Vontz of Mac Papers; Mike Sims and Morrie Zimmerman of Far East Brokers; Mary Fisher of Mary Fisher Design; Ben Patterson of Antique and Modern Cabinets, Inc.; Fred Dietsch of Media Works; Brad Ford of Ford Sheet Metal and Matt Jones of Tubel’s Goodyear Tire and Service.

“We have a bit of a mission statement that says as business owners in this part of town we’re here to improve the neighborhood for our families, companies, and city,” said Croft. “We have a vision that San Marco East is a vibrant, thriving neighborhood with walkable retail.”

Considered by many to be the “Gateway to San Marco,” the boundaries of San Marco East begin at Atlantic Boulevard and run south to Emerson Street, with I-95 on the east and the railroad tracks on the west. Aware that the area has been long regarded as the “wrong side of the tracks” from San Marco, with its quaint village-like atmosphere, members of the San Marco East Business Association believe upscale change is rapidly coming to their commercial corridor and that within five to 10 years the boundary of San Marco will extend to their province.

“Our goal is to form an association to work better with the San Marco merchants because the fact is the two areas are merging together, whether everybody likes it or not,” said Hugo. “We’re all for it, and we’re trying to put the negative connotation of North Philips Highway behind us and move forward.”

Meek agreed. “We are in the process of creating something that will become more of a formal entity to create a new identity for the area,” said Meek. “I see the association eventually being a voice for the corridor, but right now the group is in its formation stage. As it gets a bit more formalized and gets a better vision and mission statement developed, I think you will see a more formidable group.”

30-year business history

Having a business association in the Philips Highway corridor is actually not new. San Marco East is a continuation of the former San Marco Community Development Association, which was started by five of Philips Highway’s largest landowning companies in the 1990s, said Hugo. Hugo’s Interiors, Craig Meek of the Meek Companies, the Hamm family of Jerry Hamm Chevrolet, the O’Steens, and the McGehees of Mac Papers were founding members, he said.

“Back in the 90s there was a very large public works project that did water and sewer infrastructure along Philips,” explained Hugo. “My father and Craig Meek formed this association and raised funds within that group to form a public/partnership with the City of Jacksonville. It ended up involving the state of Florida because Philips is a state roadway. We paid for the plantings and the irrigation for all the islands. From then on through ourselves (Hugo’s) and giving amongst that group, we continued to maintain that from then until now,” he said. “Some members have come, and some have gone, but quite honestly during the recession my family bared the exclusive cost in that because it was important to my dad to continue it,” he said.

Interest in building up the San Marco East Business Association was reignited because the corridor stands on the cusp of great change due to the present construction of two major residential developments – San Marco Promenade and San Marco Crossing.  Developed by Chance Partners’ Jeff Rosen of San Jose and Judd Bobilin of Orlando, the two developments represent a $180 million investment in the area, said Rosen.

In early June, construction began on the first phase of San Marco Promenade, a residential complex consisting of 284 units on a large tract of empty land that had been the former location of Jerry Hamm Chevrolet and was more recently known as Jackson Square. Initial tenants are scheduled to move in in fall 2018, said Rosen.

Meanwhile, San Marco Crossing will be comprised of 300 units located on land where Southside Assembly of God is located on Kings Avenue, and its first phase of construction will begin in 2019, he said.

When all the phases of the two developments are complete, Chance Partners will have brought 850 new apartments and more than 1,200 new residents to the area, which will require a variety of commercial services such as restaurants and shops close by, said Croft.

Chance Partner’s developments are the “800-pound gorilla,” the catalyst for change in the corridor, said Meek, but it is not the only transforming element within San Marco East. Croft’s company just cleared a 3.3-acre parcel adjacent to his business and is considering what might be the best use of the land, and the Wells Fargo building, which sits on a four-acre tract on the corner of Emerson and Philips has just gone up for sale indicating transformative change for the better is coming to the “bookends” of the corridor, he said.

“There are about to be some major changes taking place here,” said Meek, crediting Rosen and Croft for getting things started. “Within the next couple of years, you will see the intersection of Emerson and I-95 is going to be a huge interchange difference. The Wells Fargo branch is a huge piece of property at a hard corner with a light. Who knows how that will end up, but most likely it will be retail. We are collectively working to help springboard that into further development opportunities and change,” he continued. “We will pick up the banner and carry this flag. It’s exciting to see there is new interest in the area and there are people who want to be proactive.”

Hugo agreed. “Bryan has taken an interest along with many other business owners in the corridor based on the economic impact that’s going to happen through the development up north along with some land sales, natural improvement and value of property,” he explained. “The I-95 interchange has been redone and overall economics are better now. Jeff Rosen, who is the driving force behind San Marco Promenade, and is putting somewhere close to $180 million of capital improvement in this area and it will automatically increase property values across the board,” he said.

From Miracle Mile to Hooker Highway    

At one time, in the late 1950s and 1960s, US-1 was “The Road,” said Meek, whose family has lived in Jacksonville for three generations. The northernmost stretch of Philips Highway between Emerson Road and Atlantic Boulevard was called Jacksonville’s “Miracle Mile,” – a vibrant community of top-notch restaurants, family-oriented motels, all anchored by the Philips Highway Plaza, one of the first enclosed shopping malls, along with Roosevelt Mall near Avondale and Gateway Plaza in north Jacksonville, to be built in the River City.

But by the 1990s, after the construction of I-95 and the mega mall Regency Square had been built, and Philips Highway North fell into hard times. The interstate had revised the traffic pattern, and many of the businesses relocated because they were on secondary roads. Several of the motels that were left became “no-tells,” giving the area its reputation as “Hooker Highway,” a place full of “thieves, drug pushers, and prostitutes.”

Meek and his partner, Charles Price, purchased the Philips Highway Plaza and eventually converted it into Metro Square Office Park, a 400,000 square-foot office space with a 100,000 square-foot ice rink and sports complex that sits on 40 acres of land at the corner of US-1, Philips Highway and I-95. And regardless of the corridor’s somewhat seedy reputation, several other companies have held their own over the years, continually working to elevate the area, including Hugo’s Interiors, Coastal Construction Products, Mac Papers corporate headquarters and Ferguson Enterprises, a branch of the largest distributor of plumbing supplies in the United States.

“You have some mass users, but you also have small parcels with small operating businesses,” said Meek, adding that it is San Marco East Business Association’s hope that property values will significantly increase so that owners of some of the less desirable motels will sell and take their businesses elsewhere. “I think you’ll see a transformation over the next five to 10 years. I think this will be a totally different corridor,” he said.

It’s all in a name

Coming up with an appropriate name for the revitalized business association was at first controversial, said Fisher, who has joined the group even though her company, Mary Fisher Design and Advertising, does not officially reside in the corridor.

“There was some controversy as to whether we could use the term San Marco East, but it’s good because it gives us an identity,” Fisher said. “We didn’t want to use ‘Philips Highway and Emerson Street,’ and ‘Midtown’ was awful. It’s nice to have a name on this part of town. Whenever I try to explain to people where I am, it was very hard to say that we were on the perimeter of San Marco. We are close to San Marco, but they really don’t have a name for us over here. It’s a pretty good name – San Marco East. It identifies where you are and puts the neighborhood into a better light.

“Now, we have a community voice, and we can get together and make things happen. It’s nice to have some camaraderie with your business neighbors,” she continued, noting she enjoys being the only female within the group of businessmen. “We will all be a bunch of flag-waving business owners and will have our San Marco East flags out.”

Thanks to Croft, a website has been set up for the group, which plans to meet every other month. Because he is in the sign business, Croft said he hopes to print San Marco East signs and install them throughout the area if business owners will grant their permission to have them on their property.

Hugo said it will take time for San Marco East merchants to decide what will work best for the area. Although the group has no desire to merge with the San Marco Merchants Association (SMMA), it does hope to eventually maintain a “brother-sister” relationship with the older group, said Meek.

“I think we will be complementary to SMMA,” said Rosen. “It is helpful to have a collective voice of neighbors that impact each other. We will complement what they are doing.”

Hugo said San Marco East wants to “get along with everybody that we can.

“We have a long way to go before we are the caliber that San Marco Merchants Association obviously is, and I think it will take some time for us to get there, probably between 2020 and 2021,” he said.

“Whatever we can do to help, we want to help, and when we need help, we want to be able to ask for help,” Hugo said. “The truth is, if you look at that corridor, which is from San Marco on the river to where the merchants of San Marco are to us, there is a huge tax base there – millions and millions of dollars in annual taxes. The association hopes receive its fair share of city services such as fire, police and general maintenance, he said.

Robert Harris, president of the San Marco Merchants Association, said SMMA is willing to assist the new group. “We are all friends and all working to make San Marco a more exciting place to live, eat, and shop,” he said. “We are happy to help them, and we are sure they will help us.”

“I think moving forward we have a great name, and we’ve got great people involved. It’s important that we keep track of how we got to this point. This is a resurgence of what we’ve been doing. It’s a resurgence of what a few guys did almost 30 years ago at this point,” said Hugo, noting his company is still proud to be a part of it.

“We think there’s a very large upside and uptick in North Philips Highway. Our business has changed dramatically in 30 years and will continue to evolve. We just want North Philips Highway to be a safe place for our customers to come, and others to come, and we want to continue to remain here just like the others. That’s why we are spending money, continuing to capitalize improvements so we can grow our businesses.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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