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Southern city all suped up

Jacksonville, a city with a shy reputation, is not the most exciting place to visit. Most people who nonchalantly drive past it don’t realize it’s actually the largest city in the continental United States. But Jacksonville has been laden with the responsibilities that come with hosting Super Bowl XXXIX, which kicks off this Sunday at 6:25 p.m. The pressure to satisfy football fanatics is completely upon the people of Jacksonville, who are finally ready to break out of their shells by showing the world just how an everyday city would run the Super Bowl: nothing short of perfectly.

According to the Jacksonville Super Bowl Host Committee’s Web site, http://www.jacksonvillesuperbowl.com, the National Football League demanded that the city have 29,000 room accommodations available for game attendees. One problem: The number of hotel rooms in Jacksonville falls short of this amount. So what does the city do? Get creative: Five cruise ships sailed into the St. Johns River on Feb. 2 and docked near Alltel Stadium to serve as an alternative lodging choice. The Web site stated that the ships, an original idea unique to Jacksonville, are all four and five-star cruise ships and compensate for more than 7,000 rooms.

The football teams, however, are sleeping on land. Jacksonville arranged to have the Philadelphia Eagles lodged at the Sawgrass Marriott Hotel, which has hosted NFL as well as Gator Bowl teams before. The hotel is in Ponte Vedra Beach, a small town about half an hour from the stadium.

“I think part of the reason (the Marriott was selected for lodging the team) is the location,” said Chris Bracken, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. “The Eagles will not be in the middle of downtown, right where everything is.”

Bracken made sure the Marriott would meet the team’s standards, perfecting everything from the high-speed Internet in every room to the hotel’s newly opened spa.

“We had a lot of meetings with the NFL to find out (the team’s) needs from past Super Bowls on what we could expect,” Bracken said. “And then we had meetings with the internal staff for pretty much the whole year. The Eagles were very pleased.”

The New England Patriots are staying in St. Augustine at the Renaissance Resort at the World Golf Village, a four-star, four-diamond resort.

“We’ve hosted a lot of very large VIP events in the past, but this is the largest single-day sporting event,” said Jeff Bloom, director of sales and marketing at the resort. “You don’t get to do it often and you want to be prepared.”

Bloom ensured that the team’s rooms were “the best in the house” and that the resort staff was ready for the Patriots to “have the run of the place.” The Patriots also have been running all over Bartram Trail High School in Fruit Cove. The school is the first high school to ever host a Super Bowl team’s practices, giving Jacksonville natives some bragging rights.

“When you hear (the NFL practice sites have) never been in a high school ever and they’re coming to your high school … that’s pretty special,” said Barry Craig, the athletic director at Bartram. “I think it did a lot for people’s pride, students as well as the community.”

Craig said that over the summer, the NFL sharpened the Jacksonville school’s football field by adding new sand, installing extensive drainage work, redoing the irrigation system and building another 7-yard practice field. An article in the Florida Times Union stated the expense was around $250,000.

“The changes have been made, the fields are beautiful,” said Craig. “The kids from other high schools were so excited to play on ‘the field the NFL had built.'”

The Eagles, however, are practicing at a Jacksonville college that doesn’t even have a football team — the University of North Florida. However, the university’s athletic facilities and fields, which have been practice sites for participating teams of Gator Bowls, were recognized by the city and the NFL, said Athletic Director Richard Grossman.

“I think we have an absolutely beautiful site and we’re proud of what we can offer,” said Grossman. “We have on our campus a stadium that’s been under construction for about six years, but it’s a tremendous expense. The stadium seats close to 10,000 people. (The facility is an) incredible credit to both the NFL and university because we’ve all worked hard to make this thing as nice as we can make it.”

UNF’s facility wasn’t the only one that was beautified. Alltel Stadium, which contains more than 83,000 seats stretching over ten acres of land in downtown Jacksonville, underwent construction over two years ago, as new modifications were added to customize the structure. According to the Jacksonville Host Committee’s Web site, the football stadium now sports four elevators, 20 escalators, a Terrace Suite that seats 700 spectators, a 20,000-square foot patio, a 25,000 square-foot sports bar called “The Bud Zone” and a new perimeter fence to secure the entire structure.

The Web site said more than 4,000 members of the media will be covering the game in Jacksonville’s newly renovated stadium this Sunday. Dave Rosenblum, the sports editor for UNF’s newspaper, The Spinnaker, is one of them.

Lately, Rosenblum has been attending and reporting about several of the numerous public events that have been taking place since September to get Jacksonville citizens pumped for game day. The Jacksonville Super Bowl Host Committee Web site features a calendar that lists information on all of the events.

“If it’s got ‘Super Bowl’ attached to it I can go to it,” Rosenblum. said “It’s gonna be tough for me to figure out which ones I want to go to. I’m just having a good time.”

With only two more days until the big game, there’s not much left for Jacksonville to do except wait. All the hotels — and cruise ships — are booked, the athletic facilities are organized and the teams have arrived. Rosenblum recognizes the intense efforts the city has made to prepare for the Super Bowl.

“This city has pretty much bent over backwards for this football game,” said Rosenblum. “All the bridges and streets have been cleaned up and lights and new landscapes are everywhere. I didn’t realize the size of this thing. I know it’s a big game and millions and millions of people watch it, but I didn’t realize it was this huge.”

Grossman wholeheartedly agrees.

“When you drive downtown you can see how the city administrators have really worked hard to try and beautify the city,” Grossman said. “There’s been a lot of painting and cleaning up and building. There’s even been a tremendous amount of landscape added. They’ve worked hard. The people are genuinely excited and we’ve worked equally as hard on this campus. I think we’re ready to go.”

“I know (the people of Jacksonville have) given a tremendous effort. There’s a lot of pressure on them, a smallish town that’s not a Super Bowl town, try to make it a big experience,” said Craig.

Bloom feels Jacksonville understands “the importance that an event like this can have on a city.”

“You go to L.A. or some other major-market towns and it may not hold the same importance to a town like that as it does to a town like Jacksonville because we know we’re on stage; we’re gonna be looked at by the world for a week or so,” said Bloom. “We’re a great town, we have a great story to tell and we want to tell it.”

All eyes will be on Tampa’s neighbors to the north on Sunday, exposing Jacksonville’s character and individuality. Everyone put forth tremendous effort, and it seems that not a single detail in preparation for the game was overlooked. As Bracken said, “What it all comes down to now is the weather.”