by Aaron London
Stretching for a mile along Beach Street between the Main Street Bridge and Orange Avenue, Daytona Beach’s Riverfront Park Esplanade is poised to be not only a downtown jewel but also an economic engine as well.
Work began on the $23 million project this past June with completion expected by the end of this year. Financed by a gift from Cici and Hyatt Brown – who pledged an additional $3 million to create an endowment to cover the costs of a park ranger and assistant – the plans include several features designed to attract visitors to the space and act as a catalyst for revitalization of the area.
Buzz about the project has been in the air for months and the Daytona Regional Chamber devoted one of its “Eggs and Issues” breakfasts to the redevelopment effort.
Jeremy Marquis, principal at St. Augustine-based landscape architecture and planning firm Marquis, Latimer and Halback, outlined the project plans at the Chamber breakfast meeting.
“The whole point of this park space is to create a very vital, engaging place for people to meet,” he said, in an effort to recreate the “vibrancy of Beach Street.”
The “family-oriented” space will include botanical gardens, event lawns, a dune overlook, and a family and garden zone with a splash pad. Water features are part of the design, with ponds and fountains as well as a network of walking and running trails.
A highlight of the park will be a statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, which will be an original bronze work created by the same artist making the marble statue of the famed Daytona Beach educator to be displayed in the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.
Bob Lloyd, executive vice president and general counsel at Brown & Brown and a member of the group behind the Bethune statues, said the idea for the bronze piece in Riverfront Esplande Park came after plans were already in motion for the larger marble statue.
“We thought it would be great if we could put it in Riverfront Esplanade Park facing west down Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard toward her beloved university,” Lloyd said. “We thought for the benefit of the community and our state wouldn’t it be great to have a touchstone for those people who won’t be able to go to Washington to see the statue.”
Lloyd said the bronze statue will not only serve as a centerpiece of the park project, it also can be an educational element for the community.
“To have that statue to tell the story to school children for the next several generations, to have that as part of our story in Daytona Beach is a huge opportunity to put that on the map,” he said.
Lloyd believes the statue also highlights the contributions of Mary McLeod Bethune to the community and the nation.
“I’m so proud of Daytona Beach and our heritage and this is another step in taking the lead and setting an example for our country,” he said.
The redesigned park also includes dozens of mature live oaks, bald cypress and magnolia to provide shade under the canopy of the up to 30-foot-tall trees.
“We are very mindful of creating a park that will roll with the natural environment,” Marquis said.
One of the keys to the project is the private/public partnership created to ensure financing for the plan as well as the long-term maintenance of the park.
Brown and Brown Insurance’s new 11-story headquarters building will provide a strong financial anchor for the park redevelopment through property tax collections, which will provide the bulk of the $800,000 needed annually to maintain the 22.5-acre park.
Steve Farmer, executive vice president at Brown and Brown, spoke at the Chamber breakfast and said the company is excited about the new building and the revitalization effort.
“We’re very excited to move over there,” he said. “This new building represents more to us more than a building. It is a true world headquarters for Brown and Brown.”
Farmer said the new headquarters helps Brown and Brown bring the organization under one roof, attracting new people to Daytona Beach.
“It allows us to bring our best and brightest to our area,” he said. “This building is going to be an incredible recruiting tool.”
Farmer said the building also gives the company an opportunity to “be a partner to downtown Daytona Beach” and part of the area’s revitalization efforts.
“It’s not just about us moving and bringing a number of people to the city,” he said. “Those people are going to shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants and buy homes in our area. It gives us a real ability to partner with our downtown merchants and other businesses here in town.”
Developer Jack White is also excited about the park project’s potential for the area and has been active in downtown revitalization efforts for several years.
“Part of getting involved is I am from here,” he said. “Secondly, I have a kind of love of just the environment, the vibe of walkable downtowns.”
White said the redevelopment project, along with traffic-flow changes will attract people to the area, White said it can create “places you can get around that don’t require a car, where you can bike, you can walk.”
For White, the park enhancements fit perfectly with overall efforts to redevelop the city’s downtown and said it will accelerate the revitalization of the area.
“The park itself and what Hyatt and Cici have donated is an amazing gift and it pushes us decades forward,” he said. “A lot of cities wait for years until they can invest in their public spaces.”
White said putting a focus on the development of public spaces is fundamentally important for any downtown development.
“Public space cannot be downplayed,” he said. “You look to the park to become the backyard and that is where people come to meet and be together in an outdoor setting, especially along the river. Most cities have developed their waterfront on the private side and we’ve got a space that is a wonderful asset for us to have.”
White said he is not deterred by the failure of past plans to improve the city’s downtown, instead seeing them as important steps in the eventual success of revitalization efforts.
“Unless you learn to try and figure out what works, you will never really improve,” he said. “In business, you try to look at what has been done before and try to pull out the ingredients that are used in order to make it successful.”
White said the park redevelopment and downtown revitalization plans have worked in other cities and there are some common steps involved in downtown projects.
“We’re not writing a story here,” he said. “We’re following a path that has been done throughout the country and if we can fulfill most of the ingredients, I think you will find it catapults us to something we haven’t seen for 60-70 years.”
The renovation project is being done in two phases. The first phase covers the area from the Main Street Bridge to International Speedway Boulevard and is expected to be completed by spring. The second phase continues from ISB to Orange Avenue.
City officials are also upbeat about the project’s potential impact on economic growth.
“It’s an exciting time for Beach Street and the city of Daytona Beach,” said City Manager Jim Chisholm, at the November Chamber breakfast.
While private-sector funding fueled the park project, the city not only committed to absorbing the maintenance costs for the esplanade, but made infrastructure changes to accommodate the changes.
Chisholm said the traffic pattern changes were put in place to make the road a “visually pleasing sight to see” and to “slow the traffic down as it comes through the downtown area and encourage the public to walk and visit the stores as well as the park.”
Those opportunities could extend beyond the downtown area and provide a boost to other businesses.
“I think it’s a huge first step,” said Daytona Regional Chamber Chairman Len Marinaccio. “What they are trying to create there is a destination, not just for the people who already live and work in the area. That can’t do anything but help all those businesses there.”
Marinaccio said the private/public partnership created to move the project forward is an important component to revitalizing the area.
“Any kind of development like this needs somebody to go first,” he said. “It’s fortunate to have Cici and Hyatt Brown step forward.”
The new park, the changes in traffic flow and the potential for continued development are positive signs for downtown merchants and the wider community.
“They’ve been struggling for years to draw people back to downtown and to me this is the first step of what is going to be hopefully a long, successful process,” Marinaccio said.
Marinaccio said the park not only will spur economic development, it will add a new aesthetic to the area.
“Once we get this park done, it is just going to add to the scenery,” he said. That could encourage people to move downtown.
“From a business perspective, the next step is to get folks living there,” he said, “whether it is an apartment project or whatever. I know there have been some proposals.”
“It’s hard to put into words how different this is from other renovation projects we have done here,” he said. “This isn’t going to be a project where you have to wait 20 years for the trees to grow. On the day it opens it’s going to look like it’s been there forever.”
Aaron London is a reporter and columnist who has covered business and economics for 27 years. He has worked for newspapers in Ohio and Florida and is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Daytona State College.