Under the leadership of its first President, Robert C. Lechner,
The Northside Businessmen’s Club was organized in the spring of 1953. The founding members represented a small group of businessmen that lived or worked in the northern part of Jacksonville. The Clubs primary purpose was to promote growth and development in the city with particular emphasis on the Northside. At that time the Northside encompassed the area East of US 1 to the St. Johns River and North of 1st Street to the Trout River. In the year 2000 that area was enlarged to include from the St. Johns River downtown, north to Nassau County and West to I-295.
The first organizational meeting of the Northside Businessmen’s Club was held at the Watson Restaurant on Main Street at the Trout River.
Because they were some of the leading businessmen of North Jacksonville, Mr. Bob Lechner asked this group to meet. He was concerned that all of the city’s growth seemed to be going to South Jacksonville. The purpose of this meeting was to form a group of businessmen from North Jacksonville to promote the north side of town, before everything moved to South Jacksonville.
It was agreed, by all those present, that they would organize a club to be known henceforth as the Northside Businessmen’s Club. To be eligible to be a member, one must either own or be a manager of a business north of 1st Street or be a resident living in that area or be a manager or owner of a business doing business in North Jacksonville.
The Watson Restaurant, where the organizational meeting was held, did not have an adequate meeting room so the Club initially moved to 9th and Main Street and then to Moore’s Restaurant. Mr. Moore was persuaded to acquire a vacant store adjoining his restaurant and convert it into an additional dining room. This proved to be a satisfactory meeting place for many years. The Club grew with the Northside, and as new restaurants opened the Club changed its meeting location to take advantage of the more accommodating facilities. In 1978 the Club began meeting on the 10th floor of Methodist Hospital affectionately dubbed, “River Club North”.
In 1975 the Club accepted its first women member who was also its first African-American, none other that State Representative Mary Singleton; our By-Laws permitting both since the Clubs inception. Much of the Clubs growth and success occurred during the 1970’s, so much so in fact, that a part-time secretary, Sharon Anderson, was hired in 1973. She retained that position until she retired in 1987. Over the next several years a number of different secretaries came and went without great success until 1993 when Mrs. Francis Dixon was hired. She was also given the position of Treasurer so she would have a board vote, and has been so successful in those positions she was awarded the Man (?) of the Year honor in 1997.
By November of 1994, the Club was on the move again. Due to parking problems and the steadily rising luncheon cost at Methodist Hospital and moved to Quincy’s on Dunn Avenue at I-95. This, however, was never a very satisfactory arrangement. When the Zoo’s beautiful new Samburu Room became available in September of 1997, the Club moved there. In lieu of the $50 set-up charge for each meeting, the Zoo requested we make donations instead to be used to upgrade the serving dishes in the Samburu Room. The Board voted unanimously to approve the request in the amount of $1,000.
Sam Folino and John Sikes edited and put out the Club’s first directory in 1975. In 1978 the Northside Businessmen’s Club helped charter the Westside Businessmen’s Club, which is still active today, although it has changed its name to the Westside Business leaders Club. In 1990 the Northside Businessmen’s Club made history by electing its first female President, Sun Bank Vice-President Georgia Reed. Due to the many requests the Club receives each year for donations, the Board voted, in 1991, to give the President $500 each year to be used at that office’s discretion. Also in 1991 we were instrumental in helping to establish yet another businessmen’s Club; this time at the Beaches. Past Northside President, Bob Grovenstine, who lives at the Beaches, became the first president. In 1992 the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair invited The Northside Businessmen’s Club to participate in a new project. Club members volunteer to man the beverage tent at the Fair, alternating with members from the Southside Businessman’s Club. For each hour a member works, a donation is made to their Club. This, along with the tips received, results in a very nice four figure windfall for the Clubs treasury. August of 1993 saw the dues increase to $50 a year, and a year later meetings were reduced from four times a month to two. Meetings are held on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of the month. In 1995 the Club began conducting an annual fall golf tournament. The money raised during the tournament was used to provide four scholarships to the four Northside high schools: First Coast, Jackson, Raines and Ribault. The following year Stanton High was added to the list, and the amount of each scholarship increased from $500 to $1,000. The tournament rose over $10,000 the first year. In 1996, one of the Clubs most devoted and conscientious members, George Stanukinos, left us. No matter what project the Club undertook, George Stanukinos, was first in line to volunteer to help, be it the Fair, Golf tournament, or planting trees along I-95. He was Sergeant-At-Arms Emeritus for over 20 years. His widow, Alva, was given a special award at that year’s banquet. George had been Man of the Year in 1993.
In 1997, this Club was primarily responsible for the erection of the Lonnie Miller Memorial monument in front of the city jail. Lonnie, a well respected member of the Duval County Sheriff’s office, was shot and killed in the line of duty. In 1999, then President Faye Rustin, pushed a motion to change the name of the Club to Northside Business Club. The membership stayed with tradition, however, and the motion was soundly defeated in a vote which required a two-thirds majority of those present and voting. The year 2000 was a memorable one, for the Club, in a number of respects. Our monthly newsletter and annual directory began being produced in full color. Past President Tim Petty came to the Club with a Neighborhood I.D. program. The initial goal was to have an ordnance passed requiring every business to display its street address in four inches high numbers (minimum) to make it easier for people to locate them. It is hoped that private citizens will follow suit voluntarily later. To bring attention to the project, which a large number of other organizations have joined, the board unanimously approved an initial $5,000. FCCJ reached its 30th year here on the Northside, and since the Northside Businessmen’s Club was so instrumental in helping attain the property for FCCJ’s North Campus, we were invited to attend their birthday party held in their beautiful Mallard dining room. The year also saw the presence of four women on the Board.
Looking back, many projects come to mind in which this Club played a major part in accomplishing. To mention but a few: our effort in having smoke alarms installed in two high-rise retirement buildings on West 44th Street; installment of traffic lights at the Dunn Avenue exit from Northbound I-95 enabling one to make a left turn without undue delay; a warning light placed on top of the Main Street Bridge over the Trout River, warning southbound traffic to stop just over the top of the bridge when a train blocked have Main Street (a speeding car might not be able to stop in time); the repaving of Dunn Avenue in 2000; improved traffic flow on Pearl Street after a study by this Club which resulted in all the unnecessary traffic lights being removed. These traffic lights had been required when Pearl was a main artery until Main Street was upgraded and the Expressway (I-95) completed. A strong effort on the Club’s part helped Atlantic Marine acquire a large contract with the Navy. Work over a period of years saw the eventual construction of the Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Bridge locally known as the Dames Point Bridge. And in 1994, with Wayne Weaver as guest speaker, the annual banquet sold 307 tickets, our largest banquet ever; in a room at the Airport Holiday Inn that only seats 300.
The Northside Businessmen’s Club has never been a political club and will never endorse a person running for office. However, it does have a great concern for good government and its elected officials. In 1979 the Board voted, and the membership concurred, to give an award each year to the most outstanding elected official in Duval County. This award is known as The Robert C. Lechner Award, honoring the Club’s first President. In 1980, the first recipient of the award was The Honorable David Harrell, President of The Jacksonville City Council. Mr. Lechner did not want this award to be an expense to the Club, so he gave the Club $1,000 to be invested in a special interest account. Each year, the income from this account, will be used to pay the award. This award is to be continued each year, in perpetuity, as long as the Club exists. If for any reason the Club should stop giving the award, the $1,000 will go to the Shriners Crippled Children’s Hospital Fund. Selection of the recipient is to be made by a committee of no less than five members appointed each year by the President.
The Club played a most vital part in securing 160 acres of free land on Capper Road for The Florida Junior College North Campus (now Florida Community College at Jacksonville North Campus). The plan, to obtain land for the college, was originated in 1963 by J.W. Allen who was assisted by Wm. F. “Bill” Wilkinson. In 1966, J.W. and Bill recruited John R. Gravely, a notable architect, who also became increasingly involved with the effort. J.W. and others, including school board member Stan Jordan, would continually ride the area looking for free land that would satisfy state requirements. One day Bill asked J.W. to go with him to see Mr. M.M. Woodley. The look on Mr. Woodley’s face, when he was asked for “free” land, was unforgettable. It was mentioned that a building on the campus might be named in his honor. As he thought about it, a little smile played at the corner of his mouth and he asked the two men to come back next week.
The next week Bill, J.W., and Johnny Gravely went back to see Mr. Woodley. Johnny Gravely, though paralyzed from the waist down, had great upper body strength and inspired admiration and respect from all who met him and never knew the word “quit”. Finally, the three convinced Mr. Woodley who said he would donate 80 acres if the Club would come up with the rest. It seems a well known developer had changed his mind about building on Mr. Woodley’s land and had given a “bundle” to get out of the contract. The show was on the road, but there was still a long way to go. Club member and state legislator A.T. “Ted” Alvarez, Jr., was a powerful force. He, along with Johnny Gravely continued negotiations with other possible land donors. Club member Elwood Geiger, and his wife Marilyn, donated approximately 20 acres, Earl and Nell Johnson and Earl’s brother Charles and his wife donated approximately 28 acres. While the exact acreage given by Mr. Woodley, Don Zell, and Mel Hollins is not officially confirmed, together they contributed 112 acres. To get the acreages all together the donors did some land swapping with Mr. Woodley.
Everyone who donated acreage received recognition for their generous contributions of land, time and talent. A building was named in honor of Mr. M.M. Woodley.
In 1990 FCCJ North Campus celebrated its twentieth birthday, and the dedication of the $5.5 million H.D. “Bo” Cotton Student Center, which houses the institute of the South for Hospitality and Culinary Arts.
On January 3rd 1995, the North Campus celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary and paid tribute to the Northside Businessmen’s Club. Don Cates was President at the time. A special award was presented to John W. Allen in recognition of his unique role. Both the twentieth and the twenty-fifth commemorative celebrations occurred under the leadership of the North Campus President Dr. Ezekiel W. Bryant. Dr. Bryant has been Campus CEO since November 1974 and has also maintained his membership in the Northside Businessmen’s Club. Because of the generosity of the land donors and the efforts of all those involved, thousands have had the opportunity to receive a college education.
The Northside Businessmen’s Club has long lobbied for a high school north of the Trout River. That dream became a reality at the beginning of the 1900-91 school year with the opening of the First Coast High School which will serve students north of the Trout River to the Nassau County line.
In keeping with the tradition of promoting and supporting educational needs in the Northside, the Club played an instrumental role in bringing a Skills Center to the area in 1978. It was constructed on the former Brentwood Golf Course.
Business leaders in the Northside envisioned that growth and development would be spurred through an adequate transportation system, both in the Northside business district and the outer perimeter of the city. As a result, numerous road projects have been supported throughout the years by the Northside Businessmen’s Club. The more notable projects include: construction of the Dames Point Bridge, which was completed in 1989, completion of I-295, widening of 8th Street to I-95, making Lem Turner four lanes from Trout River north to I-295 and Dunn Avenue four lanes from I-95 to Lem Turner. The Club also urged that lighting be installed at several locations. Following several fatal accidents, Past President Dick McMurray pursued the installation of a caution sign on top of the Trout River Bridge and in 1992 President Dave Whittlesey turned the shovel to commence the improvements of the 9A connector.
Through the leadership of Andy Johnson, the Northside Businessmen’s Club was successful in opposing an attempt by city leaders, in 1988, to relocate the Jacksonville Zoo from its Northside home to an area near the Gator Bowl. At that time the Club also proposed that city leaders commit themselves to making significant improvements to the Zoo.
In 1990 a new dock was built at the Zoo to accommodate boat traffic. In 1993, the Club supported the expansion of the Zoo into a world class attraction.
Past President Doug Peeples originated the action which finally culminated with NFL Football coming to Jacksonville. Former mayor and Club member Jake Godbold was also a driving force in that effort. The Jacksonville Jaguars commenced play in 1995.
Area Planning Committee projects include: promote a more positive image of the Northside; improve road conditions and traffic flow on Pearl Street from Union Street to Trout River; widen Golfair Boulevard, 9A, and Duval Station Road at First Coast High School; correct drainage problems at 14th Street and Walnut; and monitor actions of the Seminole Kraft/AES Cedar Bay Coal Fired Plant. In addition, the Area Planning Committee closed the Northside landfill.
Plans of the Crime Prevention and Police Relations Committee will focus on educating individuals on how to deal with and reduce crime. Projects include organizing neighborhood crime watch programs; involving churches, schools, citizens and civic organizations in crime prevention; and providing activities for the youth in their neighborhoods.