JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — When Navy Secretary Ray Mabus took the microphone last week to explain why the Navy was hosting a basketball game aboard one of its amphibious ships, his answer was direct: Among other things, it is to “thank the city of Jacksonville for being such a great Navy town and to underscore how important this port is to Americans and America’s defense.”
That was the type of testimonial the city was looking for as it rolled out a week of military-focused events that includes two nationally televised sporting events.
Between the hundreds of people who attended a veterans-focused job fair, the day spent on a summit about post-traumatic stress disorder and the Veterans Day parade, considered the largest in the state, the city was hoping to cement Jacksonville as “the most military-friendly city in the nation.”
“You do that not just with words, but with deeds,” Mayor Alvin Brown said Friday as he prepared for the basketball game aboard the USS Bataan.
Those deeds, he said, include working to end homelessness among veterans — an issue Brown discussed with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki during an August visit — and connecting departing service members with civilian jobs.
“It’s really about respect,” Brown said, “respecting those who are serving and who have served.”
Friday’s job fair was a symbol of that, said retired Adm. Victory Guillory, who heads up military affairs for the city. Around 100 companies took part, as well as a number of social-service agencies and schools. Almost 1,000 veterans attended, he said.
Mabus was there as well, giving the city a chance to show the secretary how the city feels about service members, including those who will be moving here when three new ships arrive next year.
“It tells him that when the Amphibious Readiness Group comes to Jacksonville, that we’re going to welcome those families and make them feel at home,” Guillory said.
That welcoming feeling has benefits beyond dealing with the Navy, said Jerry Mallot, president of JAXUSA, the economic development arm of JAX Chamber. A veterans-heavy workforce and a military-friendly climate is a selling point, he said.
“When we are trying to attract a new company to the area, we sell it as one of our great assets,” Mallot said.
Military friendliness doesn’t just appeal to defense industry players, Mallot added, pointing to companies like Deutsche Bank, whose local managing director is a retired National Guard brigadier general.
“It has to do with the workforce’s skills and talents,” he said. “It’s a very tangible element.”
And for veterans, Guillory said, the city’s support is one of the things that attracts them here.
The admiral was stationed at Mayport Naval Station before retiring and chose to stay in Jacksonville for a number of reasons, including the weather and low taxes. “The bigger draw, though, is the city seems to get it,” he said.