I pulled up next to a police car at a traffic light on the way to work this morning. My eyes focused on the insignia on the side of the passenger door: "Bold new city of the South." I couldn't help but think about the first time I saw that slogan, back in the summer of 1995, when it really meant something.
These are dark days in Jacksonville's history. It's playing with fire; a different kind of fire than the one that burnt the town to the ground a century ago, but fire nonetheless.
The mayor's office is taking a tough stand on the issue of Alltel Stadium signage rights. City consultant Dean Bonham has been hired to rough up Wayne Weaver and I'm incredulous that our city fathers don't understand it's not Weaver who Bonham is roughing up, but the citizens of this town.
I'm not going to pretend to know all of the particulars of the lease issue. All along, I have hoped and expected that all of this rough stuff was nothing more than saber rattling, which is a common function of big-money negotiations. I maintain hope that it's still that, but I'm now developing serious doubts. I'm starting to wonder if our city fathers want the Jaguars here.
"If (Dean) Bonham wants us to leave, just tell us," Jaguars legal counsel Paul Harden said at Tuesday night's public hearing, which addressed the issue of whether or not the Jaguars' lease gives the team electronic signage rights to all Alltel Stadium events.
Enough of that, though, because this isn't about that lease or any of its debilitating minutiae. This is about seeing the big picture. This is about playing with fire; playing with the future of this city and the hearts of fans who would be emotionally crushed if this team is forced to leave.
Rough up Weaver? Are you kidding? Do you wanna know what this franchise would be worth in Los Angeles? A billion dollars, at the minimum, that's what it would be worth.
The facts are easy to understand. There's a market without an NFL team. That market has 5,431,140 TV households in it, compared to Jacksonville's 613,000. The NFL wants a team in "that market" and should one of the league's owners say, "I'll go," the other owners will say "thank you" and offer whatever help they can provide in expediting that move.
Here's another fact: Should the City decide not to honor the Jaguars' lease agreement, that decision would constitute a breach of that contract. How's that for risk?
I don't get it. Is this really just saber rattling? Is this just all part of the negotiations process? Is the City so bold, so courageous, so reckless that it would risk losing the Jaguars for the purpose of negotiating a new lease? Cleveland took a hard line against Art Modell, and while Cleveland's city fathers were busy planning their negotiations strategy, Modell was sitting on the Tarmac at the Baltimore airport cutting a deal to move the team.
From the moment the Jaguars were born, it was understood by Weaver, the City and its fans that the team and the town would have to over-achieve to play in the same league with the "big boys." Jacksonville wasn't awarded an NFL franchise because of what it was; it was awarded a franchise because of what it would become. The time it would take to get from here to there would have to be bridged by a community effort. Now, it would seem, the City is abandoning its commitment to that effort.
Why? That's the big question. Why is the City instigating this fight? Why is it running the risk of surrendering the town's very identity? Why is it allowing itself to be led by an outsider, Bonham, and what is his motivation in all of this? He is alleged to have recently said he had a client who was willing to pay a billion dollars for the franchise and move it to Los Angeles. What does that mean?
The answers to those questions are unknown, but here's what I know to be the hard truth: A line in the sand has been drawn. The dangerous stage for which I issued warnings a week ago is now a reality. The threat that our "bold new city of the South" may slip back into its past is real.
This town could lose this team. That's a fact.