by Clarence C. Elebash
(Note: This paper focuses on the City of Pensacola but is also germane to the Pensacola Metropolitan Statistical Area -- Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties).
Our assets and advantages
The Pensacola metropolitan area has great potential. We possess valuable assets. Among our assets are mild climate, Gulf beaches, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Naval Aviation Museum, Blue Angels, a variety of recreational opportunities, a distinguished regional university, an outstanding state college, the highly respected Pensacola Christian College; and a splendid cultural environment (historical ambiance with fine and performing arts).
Also, we have east-west Interstate 10, fairly convenient connections to north-south Interstate 65, rail service, a deep water harbor, inter-coastal waterway and a first rate airport. In addition we have a sizeable military presence, acclaimed hospital and healthcare systems, a modest amount of industry and a small and, hopefully, growing group of “knowledge” businesses.
Despite these favorable factors, our area has fallen behind. We once were the envy of the Gulf Coast, but our economy had slowed up before the present recession began. Pensacola did not have the revitalization that occurred in other historic coastal cities. Charleston, Savannah, and even little Fairhope have done better than we have.
Poverty rates in Pensacola and Escambia County are high. Personal income growth is slow. Escambia County is among the poorest of large Florida counties.
Escambia County’s population is stable, but City population has actually declined. The MSA population grew because of growth in Santa Rosa County. However, the MSA still ranked low in population growth among the Florida MSAs.
External factors adversely affected our economy before the current recession began. Several factors cost us thousands of good jobs.
- The increase in American productivity meant fewer manufacturing jobs. It happened here as in the rest of the country. Technology has made production less “labor intensive”. Manufacturers maintain output with fewer workers.
- The number of employees at the Pensacola Naval Air Station declined dramatically. The closing of the aviation repair depot at the Naval Air Station meant the loss of several thousand well paying jobs. Other activities, like the Officer Candidate School and a military finance center, moved to other states.
An indirect factor is the loss of the aura associated with being the “cradle of naval aviation”. Since early in the 20th Century, all Navy pilot training started here. Now it is spread among several bases. Fortunately, Santa Rosa County’s Whiting Field has taken on additional pilot training.
The major contributing factor in the City of Pensacola’s stagnation was its failure to redevelop the waterfront. The City’s most valuable asset is two miles and 100 acres of City-owned waterfront; but it is largely undeveloped. The public has little access. Experience in other cities shows that safe and convenient pedestrian access to the waterfront creates new economic activity nearby.
There was essentially no access to the City waterfront until Plaza de Luna opened several years ago. The new park at the base of Palafox Street was an instant success.
We are not fulfilling our potential. Our community needs to shake off the present discouraging state of affairs. We are poised to move on to a brighter future as the national economy improves.
A clean, attractive and safe community -- coupled with high quality public education – is the sine qua non of economic progress. These attributes will draw entrepreneurs, workers, retirees and visitors. This is the route to a reduction in poverty. The biggest challenge is education. Our public school system is handicapped by existing poverty.
The economic future of our entire area depends on a City of Pensacola renaissance. The City is the area’s legal, financial and cultural center. Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties are not going to reach their full potential if Pensacola does not prosper.
The City has only three percent of Escambia County’s land area but its tax roll is about 20 percent of the County’s total taxable property. Although only 55,000 people live in the City, thousands more come to town to work, conduct business, dine, enjoy cultural events and get medical care.
A Pensacola revival has to start on and near the waterfront. The common theme of urban planners who visit here is: convenient pedestrian access to the waterfront.
Mayor and Council should:
- · Provide pedestrian crossings across Bayfront Parkway to the existing walkway that extends from the 3-mile bridge to Bartram Park. The sidewalk provides a spectacular view. However, there is no easy way for pedestrians to get there.
- · Provide an attractive walkway from Plaza de Luna to the east side of Commendencia Slip and Bartram Park.
- · Encourage ECUA to sell or lease the old Main Street plant to private investors for suitable development. (Please, no more government buildings and no more museums.)
- · Continue a deepwater port on a limited basis. Port revenues and tonnage are near historic lows. Job creation is overstated and unverified. The port’s south side provides ample space for existing contracts and prospective business. Other portions should be transitioned to uses that allow public access. The west side of the port facing Commendencia Slip is available now for private investment.
- Think long term about reducing Bayfront Parkway to two lanes. Otherwise, Bayfront Parkway/Main Street will increasingly become a barrier between the people and the waterfront.
- Emphasize private development on the northern part of the Maritime Park. Turning the Trillium property into a “green field” was a major achievement, but the Park needs something besides a baseball stadium. The Park needs lease income, the City needs tax revenues and people need jobs.
These additional City policies and actions will enhance the livability of Pensacola:
- · Continue to strengthen the public library system. Great cities have great libraries. (Libraries are the City’s main role in education.)
- · Leave non-governmental decisions to the private sector. “Highest and best use” property decisions should be left to investors and not to politicians and bureaucrats. (City Hall attempted to “micro manage” the 9th Avenue Hawkshaw Project. The outcome was a disgraceful failure.)
- · Maintain existing high quality basic City services.
- · Ensure satisfactory public transportation.
- · Continue to promote neighborhood identity and pride.
- Review archaeology restrictions and historic building codes. Encourage rebuilding of older properties.
- Be wary of so-called “public-private partnerships”. These promotions are usually designed to justify government subsidies for special interests.
Our entire metropolitan area is eager to provide a home for new and relocating firms. A “shining example” of success is the Navy Federal Credit Union. We can attract businesses and manufacturers. The northern portions of both counties have interstate highway connections, rail transportation, a huge port only 60 miles away in Mobile, the new waste water treatment plant, and an electric power plant.
The Pensacola metropolitan area is ripe for transformation. The two counties will benefit from a Pensacola renaissance. Our leaders must endorse change. Our entire community can have a bright future when the national economy revives. Few places can match our many advantages.