WHERE FLORIDA BEGINS?
Prague: There is someplace like home
Although I?ve traveled all over the great United States and many surrounding countries, I have never had the opportunity to venture to Europe. That all changed a few weeks ago when I visited the Czech Republic. After spending a much-too-short-but-thankful-for-anything five days in Prague, I departed feeling energized as to what Jacksonville is and CAN be in the future. Our city is a mere babe compared to history that dates back to the 14th century in Prague, so opportunity is endless.

Being in Prague got me thinking: ?What would it take to attract more tourism to Jacksonville?? Although this city seems far from a ?must see? on a trip to Florida, it should be a ?can?t miss!? After a little research, I was surprised to learn that Duval County had 2.6 million overnight visitors in 2009, which resulted in direct spending of $893.5 million. Plus, when you take into account the indirect spending associated with these tourists, we are looking at an economic impact of $1.5 billion. I know it sounds like a long shot, but what if, over the next 10 years, we could double those numbers? What would it take to attract more people to Jacksonville?

AFFORDABLE, YET STYLISH ACCOMMODATIONS

My friend Tom passed along a write-up he saw in the New York Times about a lovely boutique hotel in Prague called Mosaic House. I went to the website and learned this was the newest venture for the Bohemian Hostel group. The owner, Mathias Schwender, opened Sir Toby?s- the first of the four places he now owns- back in 1999. Schwender opened his first hostel to fill a void because he ?saw there wasn?t a welcoming or inviting hostel? in Prague. He also wanted to offer something for everyone, so each place has an assortment of hostel rooms, private rooms and apartments to suit whatever traveling budget one may have. I saw such a close correlation between the resurgence and energy that is presently going on in Jacksonville, and what Mathias saw 10 years ago in his own country.

After reading the inspiring story of how the hotels came to be, I was even more inspired to cover his businesses. I secured reservations with all four of the hotels within the Bohemian Hostel group. Although each address has a distinct style, Mathias? vision permeates each of the stylish and interesting spaces. Mosaic House is a green hotel with the only water recycling system in the entire city (they recycle shower water to reuse in the toilets). Delicately painted branches adorn the walls of the rooms and Belushi, the cafe located on the ground floor, has a tasty veggie burger. The following night at Czech Inn was, hands down, my favorite! The color palette of black, white and green kept the spaces feeling fresh and modern and so did the lovely chandelier in the center of the room. Lauren, who works the front desk, won the award for friendliest and most hospitable employee that I interacted with. At Miss Sophie?s, I was treated to a stylish apartment, complete with a kitchen. Mosaic House, Miss Sophie?s and Czech Inn all boast gorgeous bathrooms and super comfy beds, perfect for crashing out after a long day of sweating and sightseeing during a hot Prague summer. I am now a super fan of the Bohemian Hostel Group! If I ever return to Prague, you can guarantee I will be czeching these places out again. (I had to slip in one cheesy pun, right?)

After leaving, I could not help but think how perfect a few places like this would be in Jacksonville. We are a great city perfectly centered between Atlanta and Miami. I wish we had a handful of boutique hotels to entice travelers to stay for a couple of nights on their journey.

TOURISTS NEED TOURS

Since my trip was so short and I wanted to explore as much as possible, I didn?t want to waste a lot of time constrained by tours. However, if you wanted to commit to a time frame, there were some super-cool tours (and tons of people taking them) of all sorts. It made me wonder why Jacksonville didn?t have a tour of some sort. Granted, we do not have as much history as the Golden City, but we have plenty to start with.

From my experiences, it seems visitors are itching to learn more about the area. There is some wonderful history behind Jacksonville and we should be proud of it. Now all we need to do is find people to tell its story!

COME ON RIDE THAT TRAIN

I applaud Prague for the extreme cleanliness of the city, but also for its mass transit system. The subway has three lines and it is easy to figure out, even if you cannot read a lick of Czech. The above-ground tram system runs quickly, and a day pass will only set you back about one US dollar.

Jacksonville?s version of a subway is lovingly referred to as the ?skyway to nowhere.? I remember hearing stories when I was eight or nine years old about the skyway being built parallel to JTB all the way out to the beach. What a great idea! Fast forward 20 years, and it is heartbreaking to see a progressive idea never take shape. Jacksonville needs to step up its game in the public transportation sector. A huge gripe that many residents have with this city is its lack of public transportation. The city should think about reevaluating the needs of residents. The suburban sprawl that Jacksonville is (unfortunately) notorious for has caused so many to commute further to jobs. A plan needs to be formulated soon so that in another 10-20 years, when oil is even more of a dwindling commodity, our city will not be relying on it so heavily.

GALLERIES

One thing I regret not having more time for are the endless galleries and museums in Prague. Conveniently, though, an artist?s collective was on the way back from an excursion to a killer flea market. After a fifteen minute walk from the subway, I was standing in front of a giant white warehouse. The inspiring space, Karlin Studios, plays host to 16 resident artists and an underground art publication. Another day, half lost on a cobblestone side street, I stumbled upon a great photography studio. Galerie Fotografic may be tucked away, but hosts a variety of Czech artists. I was lucky enough to view the works of Prave Probiha, whose show focused on the lifestyles of residents of prefab housing on the outskirts of the city.

In order for the arts community in Jacksonville to flourish, we must embrace it. In my opinion, we are well on our way. It seems a new place is popping up almost weekly. It is wonderful to see the community support of Art Walk and Riverside Arts Market. Residents and visitors alike should feel honored to explore the galleries of Draper Studios, Threetwothree Modernism, Jane Gray, Dolf Studios, Nullspace, Suite 106 and Southlight galleries, just to name a few.

SHOP ?TIL YOU DROP

Since I happen to work in the fashion industry, it made sense that I dedicate at least one of the five days of my trip to shopping, ok, I mean researching, boutiques. Prague has so many winding streets and nooks that it tends to get a little overwhelming, but a handy pocket map made navigating a bit easier. Out of the slew of stores I stopped in, two really stuck out in my head. Leeda is a higher end collection produced in Prague by two women. The flagship store was very minimalist with a few pieces of each style. Nakoupeno, on the other hand, is a trendy little shop that fills its shelves with one-of-a-kinds strictly from Czech designers.

Visiting boutiques in Prague boosted my confidence for the retail sector of Jacksonville. There were great stores, but I saw first hand that Jacksonville has equally cool places to shop. I felt an immeasurable sense of pride in the unique shopping districts that dot the city.

ENDLESS BEAUTY

In Prague, I did not care if I screamed ?tourist.? I was snapping pictures of everything from iron gates to street art. I was astounded by the detail and craftsmanship involved in structures. From the captivating beauty of the Vltava River to the panoramic views of the city from the Prague Castle to the stunning architecture around every turn, the city is undeniably breathtaking. I wondered if residents tended to fall into complacency about their surroundings. As a visitor, it is so easy to appreciate beauty that you do not get to see every day, but do residents appreciate it?

Although Jacksonvillians may not overlook the mid-century modern and Prairie School style, our city has some beautiful buildings. The majority of Downtown was rebuilt after the fire of 1901, so although the buildings have aged, ours are new compared to European buildings. The appeal of newer, yet interesting, buildings could work in our favor. If relishing in the glory of a city is not your thing, mother nature is only a short drive away. The endless beaches, freshwater springs and nature preserves will please your inner treehugger.

THE SHORT OF IT

Let?s put Jacksonville on the tourist map and turn our existing history into something even greater! Instead of dwelling on what Jacksonville does not have, let the youth of our city work in our favor. Citizens of today need to blaze a trail so that long after we are all gone, visitors to sunny Jacksonville, Florida can experience something incredible.

In retrospect, Jacksonville and Prague may not be as different as one may think. Now if only I had some investors, I would open a boutique hotel in the old Fuel space in 5 Points while simultaneously organizing gallery tours and pub crawls on the JTA trolley. Then, I would lobby the city to train the Downtown Ambassadors to provide Downtown history tours. Well, enough dreaming, let?s get to work!

Helpful Links: www.visitjacksonville.com, www.jaxhistory.com,

www.futuraproject.cz, www.bohemianhostels.com, www.nakoupeno.cz, www.leeda.cz, www.visitprague.cz, www.fotografic.cz




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