In a 1955 episode of “The Honeymooners” titled “Better Living Through TV”, Jackie Gleasons’ Ralph Kramden and his comic foil Art Carney playing Ed Norton discuss one of Ralph’s endless “get rich quick” schemes.
“We spend $200, we make $2000 and the profit is $1800,” Ralph says. “We can’t lose.”
“Can’t lose, huh? That’s what you said when you bought the parking lot next to where they were building up the movie house there,” answers Ed. “You said, ‘People going to the movies got to have a place to park their car’.”
To which Ralph replies “How did I know they were building a drive-in theater?”
To those who may be under the age of 40 or so, Ralph Kramden was the hard-luck bus driver with a heart of gold who was forever looking for a way to lift himself out of his decidedly lower-middle-class life. In episode after episode, Ralph reached for that elusive brass ring, which in episode after episode, he found it to be just … out … of … reach.
We’ve all known a Ralph Kramden in our lives. At times, most of us have probably felt we WERE Ralph Kramden. One of the reasons the show was so popular, and why it still resonates today (if you can find a place to watch it), is because that desire for a better life, to find out if the grass IS always greener, is actually true.
But there is a metaphor here for Jacksonville as well. It seems like time after time our city reaches for the quick fix, rather than setting out a long-term plan for its future. If I read my Jacksonville history correctly, the city’s leaders have since consolidation been looking for something that will quickly boost it into national prominence. Plans have come and gone, and while each one made at least an incremental change, nothing has provided the sustainability needed for long-term positive growth. With every change in the administration or the city council leadership, each coming in with his or her own ideas and agenda, what might have been started falls by the wayside.
The Better Jacksonville Plan was something of an exception. The voter-approved plan has, for the most part, accomplished the goals it set out to achieve, but, at least in the case of the County Courthouse, at a much higher cost than had originally been anticipated. And now, the current administration and city council are struggling to find the money to pay for the increased upkeep and maintenance of the new facilities.
But projects like The Landing, which was to have been a seed planted from which a revitalized downtown could grow, never realized its potential in part because the parking issue was left to be resolved ‘later’; it remains unresolved. We know about the Shipyards … the so-called “billion dollar mile” public-private partnership that turned into a money pit for the city before the economy finally pushed it off into the indefinite future, with the city owning the land and no buyer available to put it back on the tax rolls.
So what makes Jacksonville different from a city like San Antonio, which has a vibrant and thriving River Walk entertainment district? Or Indianapolis, which has few of the natural resources we enjoy here in Jacksonville, but has managed to revive its downtown? The difference is a plan which transcends political changes.
Both cities have been visited recently by Jacksonville’s business and political leadership. Indianapolis is a particularly good model, as they have a consolidated city-county government. The takeaway from the Chamber leadership trip to Indianapolis was that they set out a series of goals, determined that they wanted to be “The Amateur Sports Capital of the World,” and took the necessary steps to be that. It does help that they have the benefit of being the state capitol, and the largesse of the Eli Lily foundation and others to back them up, but foundations like Lily don’t just give money without a solid plan to on which to base their investments.
San Antonio also set out to create a vision for its future in sessions facilitated by our own JCCI. But even before that visioning project, San Antonio was a destination for conventions and tourists. I attended a convention there in the early 1990’s and was impressed with the number of restaurants and entertainment venues along their River Walk even then. If you’ve been to San Antonio, you know their river is nothing like our St. Johns.
Jacksonville needs to undertake such a visioning project, and once that vision is determined, take the steps necessary to bring it to fruition independent of changes in government. We have so much to offer that neither Indianapolis nor San Antonio can: a beautiful natural river in the heart of our downtown, the ocean and our beach communities, and Florida’s famously temperate winters. We should be a place people want to come, with a unique natural beauty not found in such Florida tourist destinations as Daytona, Orlando, or Miami.
Jacksonville has a great deal of potential looking for an outlet, but our piecemeal approach to achieving that potential has, time after time, fallen short. As Dr. Phil might ask … “How’s that workin’ out for ya?” Without a plan in place that can be sustained beyond the next election, we may eternally be Ralph Kramden … buying the parking lot next to the drive-in theater. Very well intentioned, but with that brass ring always just out of reach.
(“Honeymooners” publicity photo Public Domain (L-R) Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, all others © Tom Patton)