Posted: Friday February 4, 2005 4:27PM; Updated: Friday February 4, 2005 4:44PM
The St. John's River flows through Jacksonvile.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Despite rumors to the contrary, there is a downtown to this Super Bowl city. There is a here here.
Granted, it's not the hot spot that a lot of highfalutin northerners expect to find. And, yeah, maybe it takes a little work to hail a taxi around here. Or to find a good restaurant. Or, maybe, just to find downtown. (Hint: Look for the bigger buildings, the backwards-flowing river and a lot of bridges.)
A spruced-up downtown is here, all right, smack dab along the shores of the St. John's River. And to prove it, they shot off fireworks from a barge in the middle of the river Thursday night. A crowd watched from the riverbanks, one deep.
Yeah, it's been a rough start to Super Bowl week on Florida's First Coast.
Jacksonville, with a population around 1.2 million, is the smallest market ever to hold the Super Bowl. (NFL owners, who vote on who gets the big game, really, really like the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Wayne Weaver.) But, strangely, it's the largest area to ever host the game in simple terms of getting around. Jacksonville, at a Super-sized 840ish square miles, is the biggest city in the contiguous 48.
So it's not just downtown that Jacksonville is all about. It's Jacksonville Beach, about 12 miles or so to the east of downtown. It's the new Jacksonville Equestrian Center, way west of downtown, site of Friday's annual Commissioner's Bash (capitalized without authorization from the NFL). It's Little Talbot Island State Park way, way north of downtown, and it's even the Renaissance World Golf Village, the home this week of the Patriots, which is way, way, waaaay south. It's so far south it's actually in St. Augustine.
Figure this out: Jacksonville is the biggest U.S. city this side of Alaska and they can't get everybody staying within the city limits?
Actually, the main reason for that is that the downtown area, where Alltel Stadium is located, has a famous dearth of hotel rooms, necessitating the use this week of six cruise ships that will house somewhere around 7,600 people. Even the cruise ships aren't enough, though, so out-of-towners are staying all over Duval County and points beyond. That means a lot of driving and a lot of valuable drinking time wasted.
The city, the whole area -- practically all of Northeast Florida -- has been getting savaged in the national press because of the room thing and the driving thing and the lack of a central place for eating and drinking thing. Jacksonville, to be sure, is not on the Top 50 list of cosmopolitan areas. Folks crack wise about the smell (a coffee plant, river and paper mill mixture) and the location (it's barely Florida, after all). But to be fair, Jax is getting grief largely because of something it can't control.
The weather here, generally very nice at this time of year (average high, 67 degrees), has been brutal. Chilly, gray and rainy. It's definitely put a damper on things, crushing attendance at the riverside fireworks show Thursday night, the free concerts at the downtown baseball park and the NFL's interactive theme park, the NFL Experience.