Perception of intolerance may carry economic price

May 05

Jacksonville leaders fear perception of intolerance may carry economic price

Source URL:

By Deirdre Conner

In the room when the Jacksonville City Council debated the appointment of Parvez Ahmed, a Muslim scholar and university professor, there were a lot of people holding their breath.

Ben Warner, deputy director of the Jacksonville Community Council Inc., said he heard from many who said they just hoped the story wouldn’t “get out” of Jacksonville.

“Everybody is just praying, ‘Keep it off Drudge,’” he said, referring to The Drudge Report, a news aggregation site with a national following.

So far, the story hasn’t gone national. But those fears illustrate a broader concern about the price of perception. If Jacksonville develops a reputation as being less tolerant, could it have deeper economic ramifications?

Throughout the Ahmed controversy that culminated in the April 27 meeting, many wondered whether it would tarnish the city’s image. Already, the story had locals buzzing after Councilman Clay Yarborough told Times-Union columnist Mark Woods he would prefer gays not hold public office, and he wasn’t sure whether Muslims should either.

Then, during the meeting, another councilman, Don Redman, called Ahmed to the podium and asked him to pray to his God, leading some in the audience to gasp audibly and sending a city attorney rushing to speak with Redman privately before he went any further.

Ahmed was confirmed on the city Human Rights Commission – though a third of the council opposed the appointment – leaving some to wonder whether they could exhale.

If the city wants to develop an international reputation to build economic engines such as the port or the Mayo Clinic, a welcoming face is necessary, said Matthew Corrigan, political science chairman at University of North Florida.

“There’s a moral reason, but there’s also an economic reason,” he said.

Stories such as the Ahmed controversy or the failed renaming of Nathan B. Forrest High School can portray the city in a negative light. Whether it’s fair or not, cities competing for businesses and talent can use that against Jacksonville, Corrigan said.

“You could argue there’s more important things going on at Forrest High than the name right now,” he said. “But from an outsiders’ perspective, having it named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan is going to be used against us.”

Perceptions of intolerance and crime are listed as a possible threat in Visit Jacksonville’s most recent strategic plan: “Crisis communications issues such as … race relations are negatively impacting the perception of the city as a safe and welcoming destination.”

Yet Lyndsay Rossman, spokeswoman for Visit Jacksonville, said race relations “never come up” as an issue for visitors.

“We don’t look at it as deterring people from coming to Jacksonville,” she said.

Rossman said the issue was included in the plan simply to be sensitive to Jacksonville’s past. She pointed to an initiative that recruits multicultural groups to hold conventions in Jacksonville. Bookings by such groups through the visitors’ bureau jumped from eight in 2005 to 46 in 2008. There were another 18 groups booked for 2009, after the economic collapse, and 29 groups are set for this year.

“We just haven’t been seeing race relations … being an issue,” she said.

One of the chief questions for cities is how race relations and economic prosperity are linked – and which causes which, said David Denslow, an economist with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Florida.

“You can look at places in the South that have dwelled on these issues,” he said. “Do they stay tied up in race because they are poor? Or does it make them stay backward?”

For his part, Denslow sees Jacksonville becoming a more progressive place.

Still, recent events have some locals worried.

Diane Brunet-Garcia, president of Brunet-Garcia Advertising, which does a lot of multicultural marketing work, said she is concerned about recruiting creative professionals to the city and keeping homegrown talent.

“I look at the young people who I think naturally are more tolerant,” she said. “They see issues like this happening in their hometown, and why would they want to stay here?”

She said she followed the Ahmed appointment closely and compared it to a small-scale version of the uproar over the immigration law in Arizona, which has been decried as racist and led to the call for boycotts of the state.

“I fear for the same kind of situation for Jacksonville,” Brunet-Garcia said. “It does have a very negative effect on our brand.”

And with the rise of the Internet, such issues have a longer shelf life and a wider reach.

When Redman asked Ahmed to pray at the podium, local tweeters – those using the social media site Twitter tend more toward the young and well-educated – reacted with horror. Two days after the meeting, dozens of tweets could be found on Twitter’s search engine calling the incident embarrassing or shameful. Liberal and conservative blogs picked up on the issue, weighing in on both sides.

Redman later apologized for his actions, but did not regret his “no” vote.

The recent Ahmed controversy had Brunet-Garcia, who has worked extensively with the local Hispanic chamber, feeling disheartened after what she called many years of progress in making Jacksonville more progressive and tolerant.

“The degree of polarization and anger really took me by surprise,” she said.

UNF President John Delaney called the Ahmed appointment a teachable moment. On the one hand, there are uglier elements, he said, such as a cartoon circulating that depicted Ahmed as a terrorist and his City Council supporters in burqas.

On the other hand, there was a time in Jacksonville when Ahmed would never have been nominated to the Human Rights Commission, Delaney said.

“I think it’s going to blow over,” he said of the story.

Even if it does, effects of the past linger. Perceptions of race could have an impact on tourism or recruiting minority business owners, said Carlton Robinson, president of the First Coast African American Chamber of Commerce.

“There are some things of a historic nature that maybe our region has not been able to shed,” he said.

But Robinson said he’s also seen more people working to help Jacksonville shed that perception, such as greater cooperation among chambers of commerce and efforts to increase civic engagement.

Ultimately, Robinson said, such discussions are needed, especially when asking whether race plays a part in decisions.

“Many times race may be a secondary or third factor … but if we don’t get an explanation, we’re left to assume,” he said., (904) 359-4504

Leave a Reply