Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

EDITORIAL>>An era ends in Jacksonville

It had been rumored for sometime that Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim might not finish his sixth term in office. Sure enough, he told the city council on Thursday that he’d be stepping down on July 1, when he turns 65, opening the field to several potential candidates who have waited a long time for him to leave office.

A special election will be held before Swaim retires, and the list of possible candidates is growing. A spirited and diverse field will enter the first real contested race for mayor in more than two decades: Swaim has not had a serious challenger since he unseated then-Mayor James Reid in 1986.

It was then that Swaim inherited the urgent need to clean up the Vertac chemical plant site, one of the worst in the nation. It took more than a decade and $150 million to clean it up under the Superfund program before the fund went broke. The cleanup saved Jacksonville and was the mayor’s finest hour.

Swaim helped usher in a building program for Jacksonvillle, including a community center, a city hall, a library and a joint-education center that will go up in front of the air base. The Main Street railroad overpass proved to be less successful, a poorly conceived project that has led to the closing of virtually all retail businesses around it. Swaim’s successor must address the urban blight in that area, especially the Sunnyside neighborhood, where crime remains high.

The city’s schools continue their decline, and it is to be hoped that a new mayor will usher in an era of renewal with the creation of an independent school district. Only then will Jacksonville become a first-rate city.