The city will take back control of Hemming Park next year, ending its two-year relationship with a nonprofit that faced scrutiny in recent months about how much the downtown plaza improved under its management and questionable spending of some of the $1.3 million the city paid it.
A top official for the mayor’s office unexpectedly broke the news Thursday at the end of a special City Council committee meeting examining how to improve the park, and specifically its future under the nonprofit, Friends of Hemming Park.
Sam Mousa, chief administrative officer for Mayor Lenny Curry, told the committee Curry wants to put the park back under the city’s control in six months and that there’s no plan yet on what to do with it.Councilman Greg Anderson, who leads the special committee, said he is “fine” with Curry’s decision but would like to know more about his plan.
“He’s the chief executive of the city of Jacksonville. One of his responsibilities is our park system,” Anderson said. “I think the Friends of Hemming Park has spent a lot of time understanding the park and its challenges, and I hope he wraps them into the conversation.”
Friends of Hemming Park took over the park in 2014 with hopes of revitalizing it from a blighted hangout into a vibrant space through a simple approach: giving people something to do.
The group installed sleek signs, brought food trucks and a coffee stand and occasionally hosted trendy events, like whiskey tastings and food festivals. It even hired a social worker to interact with homeless people in the park and help them get assistance.
The group also pledged to raise its own money, a provision added by city officials in hopes it would rely less on city money in the future.
But after the group’s initial 18-month contract expired in March, it became clear it could not operate without significant support from the city.
The council put aside an additional $250,000 help the group continue operating after its contract ended, although the payment was delayed for a few months.
The day before the council was supposed to approve the payment in May, the group’s leaders revealed they were out of money and would be forced to shut down without the money. Council members, who said they were caught off guard by the group’s dire financial situation, gave them just $100,000 and said they would decide whether to pay the rest after reviewing their finances.
The group’s situation grew tougher in the summer after city auditors reviewed their spending. Auditors questioned the “prudency” of tens of thousands worth of purchases that included staffers’ restaurant tabs, pricey gadgets and office furniture and the funeral expenses for an employee’s relative.
The findings irked council members, who not only questioned the financial management of the group but also what taxpayers had to show for their money. In response, the group changed its key leadership and promised to improve.
The group’s future managing the park has since remained uncertain. Curry included in his budget an additional $250,000 for the group to manage the park until March. Meanwhile, a council committee was considering whether the group should continue managing the park and recently developed a new set of criteria to judge the group’s success if it were to do so.
Bill Prescott, who took over the group after the leadership shuffle this summer, said Thursday’s announcement came as a “complete surprise.”
Prescott said keeping a team in place to operate the park for the next few months will be incredibly difficult now that staffers were essentially told they could soon be out of a job.
“It’s a very precarious situation,” Prescott said.