First Coast Magazine: Downtown’s New Gateway Needs a Makeover
Fashion designer Linda Cunningham and like creatives reinvent Kings Avenue
Published by First Coast Magazine | By Nan Kavanaugh | Photography by Renee Parenteau
Upon first meeting, regardless if it is a person or a place, there is a lot to take in with just a sweep of the eyes. First impressions can lay the groundwork for potential relationships to form. Driving through a neighborhood, the view from the window of your car provides little more than a first impression. The people and history of place that make an area interesting and authentic can easily be bypassed, if there isn’t a visual signal to help visitors engage. Across the country, designated cultural districts are popping up to revitalize forgotten urban core neighborhoods. The most successful of these ventures are not driven by political leadership or mega corporate investment, but are built from the ground up by the people living and working in historic neighborhoods.
At first glance, you may not notice the group of innovative businesses that line Kings Avenue on the Southbank of downtown, but there is a group of creatives working to change that. Fashion designer, Linda Cunningham and a collective of neighboring business owners met over beers one day at Aardwolf Brewery in San Marco. The group realized that their companies were all operating with little more than three degrees of separation. Collaboration was already happening between them, and the idea of creating a way to better build synergy between their businesses just made sense.
“Linda is like the Mayor of Kings Avenue. She has been a great catalyst, and is one of the most hardworking, creative and dedicated people I have ever met,” says Karen Burdette founder of Burdette Ketchum, a marketing agency located on the street. Cunningham, a Jacksonville native, launched her career in fashion on the First Coast in the late 1980s.
“I grew up here and loved Jacksonville. When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to stay here because of the river and the ocean,” says Cunningham. “I am a hometown girl, and I just didn’t think there was anything out there better than what we already have,” she says.
Cunningham’s designs can be found in boutiques across the country, and her wholesale collection is shown through the Collective Designers group at the Essex House during New York Fashion week. In 1999, she bought her building on Kings Avenue. It was once an old beauty supply store, and she completely transformed it into a fashion house within three years. The reason she moved her company to the street on the Southbank was to make parking more accommodating for customers.
“I felt like if I could come down here, where there wasn’t a lot of retail, my clients could have parking spaces instead of calling and saying, ‘It’s 10 am and I am circling around,’” says Cunningham.
The business owners that set up shop on the street located on the southside of the San Marco area all arrived for different reasons. For Karen Burdette, she invested in Kings Avenue in 2005. The building was the perfect space to give her team a creative environment for an inspired work life.
“We came because we just wanted a cool building. We wanted something stimulating to our team, and we were out at suburban office park in Deerwood. This was a perfect opportunity,” she says. Three buildings went up for sale at the same time, and it was an easy decision for her company to make the move. “There are great buildings on this street, that had just gone unloved for a long time. This was really an opportunity to rehab them and make them spectacular,” says Burdette.
Urban designer Russ Ervin, principal partner at ELM, an architecture and design firm with offices here and in Seattle, saw the businesses investing in Kings Avenue and decided to follow suit recognizing the growth potential.
With easy highway access, the Kings Ave Skyway station plays a role in this vision. The station’s plentiful parking will allow for residents to easily attend large events downtown.
The entrepreneurs that make up the KingsAve Creative Corridor each bring their own skillset to developing the street’s identity. Burdette Ketchum designed signage that highlights each building’s unique history as well as provides a cohesive visual of the street addresses throughout the corridor.
They also see the project as an opportunity to network amongst likeminded creatives with community activites, like yoga days and food truck gatherings, for the companies on the street.
“Collectively, we hope to do events that get our teams together. They will have the opportunity to stimulate each other as creative people in different fields. It is fun to have the opportunity to connect,” says Burdette. “We hope to attract other creative businesses to the street too.”
More Millennials from Jacksonville are moving back home after launching their careers in bigger markets like New York City and Chicago, and both Burdette and Ervin see this momentum as great for business downtown.
Maybe this new generation will invest with the same pioneering gusto that Linda Cunningham did thirty years ago. “Sometimes you have a dream, and the dream is within your heart and your mind. You develop your talent over time. Then you just go out there and throw your talent out into the water and the fish come, and it just blossoms from there,” says Cunningham about her experience launching her career in fashion in Northeast Florida. Today, successful and established, she is a testimony to the potential of our region to support young entrepreneurs. “We [KingsAve creatives] are just really excited about our street, our neighborhood and our community. We are committed to Jacksonville. We have clients across the country and worldwide, and I think we bring a lot to the table,” she says.