When the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce commissioned a nationwide media survey last January among sports, business and news reporters, they were astounded to learn that more than 60 percent of the respondents thought the city was much farther south and located on the Gulf Coast, not the Atlantic Coast.
"People kind of knew we had great golf courses, nice weather and a pro football team," said Jerry Mallot, executive vice president for the Chamber. "A few of them, and I kid you not, didn't even know we were in Florida. I'd like to think that after this week, everyone is going to know where we are, and you'd like to think some of them might even want to come back."
"Ready Or Not . . . " was the front page banner headline on Sunday's Florida Times-Union as the football/marketing/broadcasting juggernaut known as the Super Bowl arrived at the smallest market to host any of the 39 games. At the airport this afternoon, a battalion of volunteers in red Super Bowl shirts and khaki pants spread out on the concourses, the terminal and the baggage area, shouting out "welcome to Jacksonville" to anyone who walked past and handing out informational pamphlets and stickers reading "Jacksonville: Where Florida Begins."
Both Super Bowl teams, the defending champion New England Patriots representing the AFC and the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFC arrived late in the afternoon. Most of the 100,000-plus expected visitors will begin showing up by midweek for a game with a minimum ticket price of $350, a relative pittance compared to what city leaders of this burgeoning river city are hoping the game attracts in future economic development.
"We think it's an opportunity for us to introduce this community to the country and the world," Mayor John Peyton said in an interview this week. "We know that Jacksonville is not an established or well-known city like all the other Super Bowl cities. We're a new player in this, and I'm hoping it will be parlayed into economic opportunity. It's an extraordinary chance for us to develop more business for a city that already has a low tax burden and a great quality of life."
Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the country, with a population of 1.3 million spread over 840 square miles, a size gained in 1968 when it consolidated the city and nearby Duval County. It has something of an inferiority complex when compared to more well known and more highly populated Florida hotspots such as Miami, Tampa and Orlando. But it also has miles of sandy beaches, scads of lush golf courses, an average temperature of 65 degrees on Feb. 6, otherwise known as Super Bowl Sunday, and obviously, a lot of room for economic growth.
Most cities estimate an immediate economic impact of a Super Bowl to be in the $300 million range. The airport is expecting 1,200 private jets this week and hotels are virtually impossible to find within 40 miles of the stadium.
Hotel space was among the major hurdles to overcome, in fact, when Jacksonville first began dreaming about hosting the event in the late 1990s. The NFL requires any host city to have what it describes as at least 17,500 "quality" hotel rooms. That's no problem in Super Bowl cities like Los Angeles, Miami, San Diego and New Orleans. But in Jacksonville, they were about 3,500 rooms short.
Wayne Weaver, who is lead owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and made a fortune selling shoes, had another idea. He'd been to the Summer Olympic games in Barcelona and Sydney and knew that some spectators had stayed on ships docked in the harbor. Why not do the same in Jacksonville, which is on the St. John's River with the Atlantic Ocean nearby?
On Wednesday, five cruise ships contracted by the NFL will sail into town, docking at several locations within two miles of the stadium. Guests will be from corporations who are the game's official sponsors -- Pepsi, Reebok, and many others -- fans, Super Bowl staff and family members from the participating teams also will be on the boats. The hotel crisis was averted, and Jacksonville was awarded the game in November 2000, beating Oakland and Miami on the fourth secret ballot of league owners.
"There's no question we're ready for this game," said Tom Petway, a limited partner of the Jaguars and co-chairman of the Super Bowl host committee. "We could have had this thing here last year. I think the league will tell you we are delivering everything as advertised. Our secret weapon is that the NFL has done this 38 times before. They know what they're doing and they don't do anything [halfway].
"It's not like we're small-town hicks here. We're not new to this responsibility. We've had NFL football here for 10 years. We've had 75 years of the Gator Bowl, 50 years of Florida-Georgia, the world's largest outdoor cocktail party, and the Players Championship over at Ponte Vedra. And we have one of the best Super Bowl stadiums in America. We can put an event on."
The host committee has raised more than $12 million in private funds and the city has kicked in close to $3 million, as well, with $5 million likely to come back in sales tax and hotel surcharge revenue alone. Security expenses will eat up about $6 million, with costs split between various local, county and state governments. The Coast Guard will patrol the river, which will sparkle at night thanks to new lighting on four of the city's seven bridges closest to the stadium area.
In 2000, Jacksonville voters also approved a $2.2 billion growth management plan that has also helped change the face of downtown. A 16,000-seat arena and minor league baseball park are not far from the stadium, now also surrounded by a sea of tents that will house the pregame corporate parties. There's a new three-mile river walking/biking/jogging trail, a library, courthouse, equestrian center, and major improvements at the zoo.
"We think the biggest impact from this game will be two to five years down the road," said Mallot. "I think people will have a much greater elevated sense of Jacksonville. Many of the people who come to this game are corporate movers and shakers. The next time their company looks at where they're going to put a new office or a new manufacturing facility, they'll think about us. And when we get on someone's short list, we usually win our share."