Deno Hicks is a Jacksonville native and the President of River North Strategies. With more than 20 years of experience providing government affairs and business development support services throughout Florida, he has built his reputation on successful results through thoughtful understanding of his clients’ needs, alignment of goals and objectives, and advocating firmly with sound strategy.
Deno has successfully represented a variety of industries, including real estate, technology, the energy sector, health care, maritime, outdoor advertising, transportation, telecommunications, water utilities, and has worked on local/state incentives and procurement support.
Locally, Deno has served on the Mayor’s Transition Team, Major Issues Committee for the 2030 Comprehensive Plan Update, Sheriff’s Community Engagement Task Force, Planning Commission for the City of Jacksonville, the Zoning Code Re-Write Committee for the City of Jacksonville, and on the City’s Charter Revision Commission.
Deno, in his SL7 Influential Interview, shares his thoughts on the present and future of Jacksonville.
SLEVIN: You’re a lifelong resident of Jacksonville, tell us what’s happening in Jacksonville from your point of view.
HICKS: As you said I was born and raised here in Jacksonville and I’ve seen a lot. Duval has changed over those years, but you’ve got to look at the foundation of our businesses, community leaders, and policymakers to truly understand who we are today and where we want to go in the future. That foundation includes a responsible pro-growth, business-friendly mindset with an eye toward attracting new opportunities. Jacksonville’s leaders are not looking to protect entrenched interests at the expense of keeping new players out—they are looking to expand the pie.
We’ve been this hidden gem and are starting to be recognized by those outside of our community. Historically reliant primarily on the insurance, banking and logistics industries, Jacksonville is beginning to rapidly evolve, introducing new industries and expanding on others. Private and institutional investors don’t just have their eye on Jacksonville, they are actively deploying capital to this market.
SLEVIN: What’s happening in Downtown Jax? There appears to be renewed focus on its redevelopment efforts the last few years.
HICKS: Our downtown is heading in the right direction as a result of a collaborative, intentional effort. Our mayor, city council, the Downtown Investment Authority, the Jax Chamber/Jax USA, Downtown Vision, private sector business leaders and numerous other organizations have worked hard to develop thoughtful policies and establish a vision for downtown. The private sector has responded and shown that they are willing to take the risk and deploy capital into projects downtown knowing they have city leaders pulling in the same direction.
We’ve had some trademark projects and transactions with developers and business leaders planting their flags and betting on downtown. Of specific note, after years of hard work, developer Steve Atkins of Southeast Group delivered the fully restored Barnett Tower, with a mix of uses including residential apartments (which are fully leased up), commercial space already occupied by the University of North Florida’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, The Jacksonville Business Journal operating on the mezzanine level, and Chase Bank’s impressive premier Jacksonville branch location in the street level lobby of the tower.
Also driving change downtown has been VyStar Credit Union’s relocation of their headquarters to downtown with more than 1,000 employees, where plans also include development of a new parking garage with retail frontage. And if this move weren’t enough, through the leadership of CEO Brian Wolfburg and his team at VyStar, they continue to support our downtown by providing the naming rights for the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. This accompanied their latest gesture issuing primary financing to the Jacksonville Historic Naval Ship Association, as their President attorney Daniel Bean and his colleagues continue to efforts to bring the USS Orleck to Jacksonville to establish our naval museum.
We are also seeing buildings change hands downtown. Developer Alex Sifakis of JWB Real Estate Capital is at the forefront with his recent acquisitions of the Seminole Building, Federal Reserve Bank building, the adjacent 218 West Church Street building and the Porter Mansion, all part of what has been branded the “North Core.” I’m bullish that change is happening because those investing in downtown are doing it with a vision. They understand how to build critical mass and that it takes those in the same sector to collaborate and work along with our government to develop viable projects.
SLEVIN: What else has contributed to Jacksonville recent successes beyond Downtown?
HICKS: Geographically, Jacksonville continues to be a premier logistics community where industrial growth is booming. With the leadership of JAXPORT CEO Eric Green, JAXPORT is making the physical improvements and investments into port operations and harbor deepening that will provide them the leverage necessary to be more competitive in their pursuit of growing our port traffic.
Jacksonville has experienced low vacancy rates in the industrial sector, and a testament to our region’s strategic advantage can be seen in transactions this year such as:
- Amazon’s now 9th facility identified
- Safari moving from Miami to Jacksonville’s Westside Industrial Park
- Lowes Companies new cross-dock terminal at Freebird Commerce Center
- Ulta Beauty Care taking space at NorthPoint
- Quiet Logistics also moving into NorthPoint
- Samsonite at Imeson Park
- FW Plastics relocation to Jacksonville
Jacksonville is poised for continued expansion in the industrial sector and developers are responding with recent activity in spec development.
Also contributing to our economic success is the demand for single- and multi-family housing. Business relocations help support this growth, but we are also seeing residents migrating from the Northeast and other parts of the country to Jacksonville as a result of the Covid pandemic. We are no longer a secret, as they are realizing our business-friendly environment and quality of life, and that we are surrounded by so many great natural resources such as our St. John’s River, beaches, parks, and hiking and biking trails just to name a few.
SLEVIN: While logistics, banking and insurance have been bedrock industries in Jax as you stated, what are some of the new growth opportunities you are seeing?
HICKS: Technology companies are thriving in Jacksonville. I couldn’t be more excited to see the young energetic ideas coming out of this community and the talent that we are recruiting to our city. We continue to see growth in our FinTech industry as innovation continues to change the delivery of financial services. Recent announcements of new and expanding businesses are a recurring theme. And with tech advancements, we are also seeing an influx of technologies that literally are changing the way we operate our businesses, the way we live and the way we move from place to place. We are seeing technology deployed through partnerships with our Jacksonville Transportation Authority such as the introduction of autonomous vehicles in what they have coined the U2C program; we are seeing it through Zillow’s expansion of services here such as “Zillow Offers,” where Jacksonville was identified as one of Zillow’s strategic markets nationally to deploy the service; and through the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s partnership with Motorola Solutions, where they have created the “Real Time Crime Center” to act as a force multiplier in providing our law enforcement with additional tools to combat crime; and the list goes on.
SLEVIN: What are some of the challenging issues facing Jacksonville that could get in the way of future success?
HICKS: To be a great community we have to be honest with ourselves. We can beat our chests over things we are proud of, but like every community we can always do better. If we don’t call those issues out and begin to address them, then our success may be short-lived. We need to continue to invest in infrastructure in neglected areas of our community; we need to continue to work towards being a safer community where every voice believes they are heard and represented; we need to provide our law enforcement and public safety professionals who put their lives on the line every day with all of the resources they need to be effective and make it home to their families, a privilege we often take for granted; and we need as a community to invest in our kids, their education, and in the physical schools where they learn. Jacksonville residents have the opportunity this election cycle to approve a ballot initiative for funding that will give our kids the quality of schools they deserve, and where educators can have the tools they need to provide for a better education. We do this for our kids first and foremost, but for our city to be successful in recruiting new businesses and helping others expand here, we’ve got to understand how critical it is for those businesses to have confidence that their children will have the best learning environment and education possible. And we need to ensure that we are using sound judgement in the decisions and investments we make as a city.
SLEVIN: Thanks Deno, and if you had to sum it all up, give us the playbook?
HICKS: We need to celebrate the successes we have in this great city, recognize the gaps and lead with a plan that creates opportunities for all, protects our environment and supports the economic development necessary to stabilize a city on the rise.