How Jacksonville got Super status

Published: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 1:08 a.m.
JACKSONVILLE - When Paul Tagliabue whispered into Dan Marino's ear, Jacksonville officials thought all their hard work had come to a sweet nothing.
Super Bowl bidders from Jacksonville; Oakland, Calif.; and Miami, represented by Marino, had traveled to an owners meeting in Atlanta that October day in 2002 to learn which of their cities would host the 2005 game.
When the members of the group from northeast Florida saw the NFL commissioner speaking to the Dolphins great, you could almost see the dream flee their bodies.
''I thought we lost it,'' said Shelly Marino, vice president of external affairs for the Jacksonville Super Bowl Host Committee.
But whatever Tagliabue told Marino, it wasn't that Miami had won. Minutes later, the commissioner announced that Jacksonville, perhaps the unlikeliest host city in history, had been awarded Super Bowl XXXIX.
''People were so excited,'' said Heather Surface, the committee communications director, ''that on our way home from the airport there already were billboards out along the highway.''

Unlikely host

Somehow Jacksonville, without a tourist industry, a tropical climate or much of a national reputation, captured the biggest event in American sports. The story of how the city managed it began not long after Wayne Weaver moved his Jacksonville Jaguars into gleaming Alltel Stadium in 1995.
A boom in NFL stadiums followed, and after just a few years, the Jaguars' owner realized he would need to upgrade his if he wanted his team to stay competitive.
''There were substantial renovations that we were going to need,'' Weaver said, ''the kind of renovations that you'd have to do in order to host a Super Bowl.''
Within two years, Weaver and a group of Jacksonville businessmen were meeting regularly to discuss the possibility.
''I came in here in January of '97, and I hadn't been here eight months when I got sort of drawn into early conversations about it,'' said Peter Rummell, the cochairman of the host committee. ''I think it was early in '98 when we formed the host committee and set about bidding for the game.''
Not everybody can bid, however. The NFL must approve the bidders, too. The committee flew Jim Steeg, the NFL's vice president for special events, to its city, and after a quick tour of the area, he have the group a go-ahead.
The planners began to take inventory. They knew that with a $64 million face-lift the stadium would be Super Bowl-worthy. They knew they had a growing population and thriving business base.
And, maybe more important given the public commitment that would be necessary, they knew that, thanks to the city's consolidation with surrounding Duval County in the late 1960s, there was a political structure in place that would make it easier for them to work with government.
What Jacksonville didn't have, though, was a tourism infrastructure.
''New Orleans as a city is not that much bigger than we are,'' Rummell said. ''But it has a totally different orientation. New Orleans is about meetings and tourists. So it has hotels and restaurants that we just don't have because we've evolved differently.''
Jacksonville discovered its tourism shortcomings while filling out the massive application the NFL requires of all bidders. One by one, the planners checked off the league's criteria: 700 limos available that week? Check. Tie-down space for 650 corporate jets? Check.
Until they got to the hotel requirement. The NFL wanted more than 17,000 upscale hotel rooms within a 25-mile radius. That was about 3,500 more than they could possibly foresee.
They eventually resolved that problem in such an inspired manner that the solution helped sway the NFL owners. Planning to make the St. Johns River the centerpiece of its Super Bowl activities anyway, the committee decided on floating hotels - five cruise ships that would dock in the city and provide the necessary rooms.
''Once we solved the room issue, the other issues were just generic,'' Rummell said.

Changing perception

The committee finally presented its formal, 750-page bid to the NFL in 2000. In keeping with the nautical theme, it was packaged beneath a cover that resembled an ocean liner's porthole.
Then came two long years spent preparing for an event they might never host and waiting for an answer. The local group put together a large volunteer organization, raised enough money to hire a small staff, and flew back and forth frequently to South Florida to negotiate with the cruise-ship companies. When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred, security became a major issue.
''And all throughout the process we spent time with the owners and Tagliabue, convincing them that we could pull this off,'' Rummell said. ''They went through a verification process on our bid. And once it was done, Steeg and his people lived with us off and on for the next few years.''
During that long, uneasy interval, committee members kept encountering those who wondered what they were smoking. The doubters scoffed at Jacksonville as an out-of-the-way, backwater town that couldn't possibly provide everything a Super Bowl demanded.
But the Jacksonville those people recalled was changing rapidly.
''It doesn't have the tourist overlay that a lot of other Florida cities have,'' Rummell said. ''But it's got a much more diverse economy than you see in lots of those other places. There are 17 million people in Florida, and it's not built around its seasonal climate anymore. It's a year-round place.
''Jacksonville has had a slow, methodical but well-founded growth. It's really now at a tipping point. ... It's never going to be Miami or Orlando, but it's going to be a substantial city with an interesting nucleus to it. You're starting to see that with downtown housing and things that are critical pieces of any downtown coming to life.''

Increase in taxes

Perhaps the most significant piece of Jacksonville's Super Bowl dream was a tax increase that organizers, despite the benefits it provided them, continue to insist was not connected to their efforts.
In 2000, Duval County voters approved a 10-year, half-cent increase in the sales tax. The city then floated $2.2 billion in bonds. With the revenue, they built a new baseball park and a 16,000-seat arena, both near Alltel Stadium on the St. Johns River, and improved local highways and the airport.
All of that turned out to be quite useful after Tagliabue made his announcement in 2002.
''It was done after we had made the Super Bowl bid, but it was really independent of that,'' Rummell said. ''It had its own momentum. Thank God, it got done because without it, it would have been a heck of a lot harder for us.''
Because the city still does not have enough venues to host the numerous Super Bowl parties, concerts, and interactive, media and promotional events that are fixtures of Super Bowl week, much of the fun in Jacksonville this week will take place in tents.
''I remember going to Houston for last year's game and they had the Astrodome sitting there basically unused,'' Rummell said.
''Imagine having a building like that just as an extra. We're going to use more tents than Houston had. It will be more festival, more concentrated, more temporary.
''We're not going to try to be something that we're not. We are what we are, and we're trying to put on a four-day festival, and I hope it will come across that way.''

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