JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - After more than four years of planning, Jacksonville is ready for its time on the Super Bowl stage.
Owners of temporary stores are loading shelves for a one-week sales season, security is getting tighter and the football world's eyes are beginning to focus on the River City - which, despite its relative lack of status compared to some of the nation's popular tourist destinations, welcomes the challenge of hosting the NFL's title game.
The finishing touches for the transformation of Jacksonville's downtown are going on in earnest, with workers planting flowers, paving streets and setting up temporary cell phone towers - all with the hope of better accommodating the estimated 100,000 visitors who'll flood the city this week for the Super Bowl.
Palm trees have been planted and concrete sidewalks have been replaced by brick. Television lights and towers have been erected atop a parking garage, TV networks are beginning to set up their expansive camps and colorful fiberglass manatees spaced through the downtown area.
And on Sunday afternoon, the real stars - the AFC champion New England Patriots and NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles - arrived to begin their final preparations for the Feb. 6 game.
Let the party begin.
"I'm glad it's finally here, but it's a big mystery dealing with all the unknowns," said Vince O'Rourke, who owns Eclate, a downtown restaurant and lounge.
Jacksonville has never before hosted a Super Bowl, and for many the process has been of the learn-as-you-go variety. O'Rourke said the game is causing him big logistical problems as far as supplies and staffing - he simply doesn't know how much to order and how many people to hire.
Betty Turner operates a jewelry store, and she, too, has concerns - like how diverted traffic will affect her sales. A street festival will go on outside her downtown storefront, and she's not sure how she'll get to work or where she - or her prospective customers - will park.
"I am praying very hard that the Super Bowl will give us the bump to keep going," Turner said.
Organizers insist that everyone involved can relax, and that everything leading up to next Sunday will go as planned.
It may be the first Super Bowl for the city and most of its 10,000 volunteers, but it's not the first for many of the key organizers - including Michael Kelly, who heads the Super Bowl Host Committee after serving in a similar capacity for Tampa's Super Bowl in 2001.
Kelly knows the city wasn't a popular choice to host this game, yet he believes Jacksonville, which submitted its bid application back in 2000, will prove critics wrong.
"There is a lot of anticipation," Kelly said. "We are ready to get the party started."
Added host committee spokeswoman Heather Surface: "A well-oiled machine is an excellent way to describe it."
Plans seem to be moving along smoothly as the city prepares for the hordes of Eagles and Patriots fans, the arrival of five cruise ships that will serve as temporary floating hotels, plus corporate bigwigs and a virtual army of public relations folks pushing everything from the Sharpie ink pens to rapper Snoop Dogg.
Organizers say the game will result in a direct economic impact of $300 million or more for Jacksonville, the nation's largest city in terms of mass (841 square miles) but one that doesn't even rank among the nation's top 50 television markets.
And there are plenty of people hoping to cash in. Among them: Former NFL tailback Ben Malone, who played for the Miami Dolphins from 1973-78. He'll operate a temporary storefront called "Major T's," which will be stacked with Super Bowl shirts, jackets ($300), shot glasses ($8) and other memorabilia.
Every year the Malone family, from Tempe, Ariz., heads for the Super Bowl to operate a similar shop.
"We heard this was where there was going to be a big block party," said Malone's son, Ben.
Down the block, Mike Ranne, a building manager, was overseeing the completion of a coffee shop, which will be run by the Jacksonville chapter of National Association for the Mentally Ill - of which he's the local president.
"The Super Bowl has been good for downtown, he said, "People are doing what they've put off doing for years, even if they are doing it in one week."
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