With the US economy still struggling from the effects of the 2008 global recession, high unemployment is one of the biggest challenges facing the country.
Elected officials at state and city levels have been forced to bypass federal government and come up with their own solutions to jumpstart regional economics.
A newly elected mayor in Northeast Florida, for example, says he is pulling out all the stops to transform the local economy. Alvin Brown, who took office on July 1, promised to “take Jacksonville to the next level” through job creation, downtown regeneration and making education & public safety a top priority.
The forty-eight-year-old is the first African-American mayor in the city’s history and the first Democrat since 1991. Like Obama, Brown was the underdog who took critics by surprise as his campaign gained momentum and his popularity grew fueled by widespread support in urban Jacksonville.
Brown’s win against his opponent, Republican Mike Hogan, was a significant victory for the Florida Democratic Party and major upset for the conservatives embroiled in infighting in the run-up to the elections.
Henry Thomas, a political scientist at the University of North Florida has said in an interview with the Florida Times-Union, “His victory is Jacksonville’s Mandela moment,” Thomas says. “The city has essentially done what many thought would never happen.”
Brown, who describes himself as the “jobs mayor”, says his main focus is economic development and jobs creation. “Most of what he talks about eventually comes down to jobs. Jobs have been the big focus of his agenda,” says Timothy Gibbons, who covers mayoral politics in Jacksonville at the Florida Times-Union.
The mayor has launched a high-profile campaign to attract international and domestic investors and companies considering a move or expansion. In the three months leading to the end September, Mayor Alvin Brown took eight trips to locations throughout the country to meet companies interested in doing business with Jacksonville.
“There’s a sense of optimism that he can help improve the economy. He’s only been in office for just over 100 days but he’s upbeat, energetic and positive. That sets the tone for optimism,” says Mark Woods, columnist for the Florida Times-Union.
Only last month, Brown accompanied a delegation of business leaders on a 5-day trip to Brazil to build relationships with companies interested in doing business in Jacksonville and elsewhere in the state. “We’re taking a very proactive, aggressive approach to position ourselves to compete when it comes to jobs,” Brown said when the trip was announced.
“I want to send out the message Jacksonville is open for business. My focus is repositioning Jacksonville and putting it on the map to attract world leaders to compete in the job market,” Brown says in an interview with theGrio.
Brown, who is keen to downplay his ethnicity, says “he’s a mayor for everyone no matter what side of town you live on.” Jacksonville, the most populous city in Florida, is diverse a city with around 30 percent African-Americans.
Jacksonville was hit badly by the recession and at its worst the unemployment rate was 12.2 percent in July 2010. The jobless rate has since improved, 10.2 percent in September 2011, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The U.S. national jobless rate is currently 9 percent.
“Jacksonville is making significant progress. Our unemployment rate is now down to 10 percent, and we expect it to be in single digits in 2012,” says Jerry Mallot, senior vice president of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Our new mayor, Alvin Brown, is working diligently to support growth and expansion of local companies and attract new business to Northeast Florida.”
Another big initiative to bring jobs to Jacksonville is to elevate the port, which Brown describes as a “multi-million dollar economic engine.” JaxPort is operating at a fraction of its capacity and the mayor is pursuing a $25 million dollar federal state grant to restructure the port, which would create hundreds of construction jobs and boost the city as a gateway for the regional and local economy.
Other issues at the forefront of Brown’s administration are education, public safety and making “downtown an attractive destination.” He says he also wants to attract the entertainment industry and major sporting events, as well as “elevate the military because the city has two naval bases.” All measures, he says are long-term strategies to maintain growth and development in the region.
Barely two weeks after taking office, Mayor Brown announced he would reduce his salary by 20 percent and declined the offer of a pension. He also axed 220 jobs in the city government. “It is important to get your house in order and live within your means,” Brown says.
“When I took office I inherited a $60 million deficit,” but he says he now has balanced the budget without tax increases to make the office “economically efficient.”
Earlier this month the mayor unveiled plans to reorganize the city government, which includes a new department which could reshape the downtown area. “The aim is to streamline operations to deliver services in an “efficient and effective manner,” Brown says.
He supporters say they are impressed by his energy and enthusiasm and he is the “best cheerleader” for the city of Jacksonville.
But Brown is not without his critics. According to a recent report, despite Brown campaigning for fiscal accountability he has one of the biggest travel budgets in city hall. His travel budget it $70,000 dollars.
Those closest to him say he is a “hands-on mayor” committed to meeting CEO’s face-to-face to close the deal.