Pensacola, Florida
Sunday November 23rd 2014

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The Buzz 6/21/12

Razor Wire Blues

Where is Oakwood Terrace Apartments? The girl walking down the street doesn’t know. She scrunches her face into a confused grimace.

How about Truman Arms? There’s a spark of immediate recognition.

“Oh, Truman Arms? That way,” she said, pointing down the road.

At the end of the road, Oakwood Terrace—formerly the Truman Arms project—sits behind a concrete wall topped with spiraling razor wire. Though the name changed to something more palatable long ago, the razor wire remains.

“They changed the name,” said a man named James, sitting near the entrance. “It’s still the same place.”

By whatever name, the property sits just off W Street behind a tall concrete wall. There’s only one way in or out, past the security gate.

Three men sit out front of the apartment complex. They refer to the walled-off, razor-ringed Oakwood Terrace as a “compound,” “prison” and “degrading.”

Built decades ago. Like many area ‘projects,’ Truman Arms was privately developed and subsidized via Housing and Urban Development funds in order to offer low-income housing. The properties usually had a disproportionate percentage of African-American residents.

“Back in that time period there were a number of complexes—Pensacola Village, College Trace,” explained Randy Wilkerson, with the Neighborhood Enterprise Foundation, a local non-profit housing and community development agency. “Then, of course, as time went on HUD moved away from that model.”

Wilkerson doesn’t recall exactly when the razor wire went up. It was quite a while back.

“My recollection is—I know it’s been up there a good while—I know the current owners are not the ones who put it there,” he said. “Of course, they haven’t taken it down either.”

At Oakwood Terrace, the men note that this property is the last of the projects that still has such a formidable parameter: “Even Pensacola Village took their’s down.”

Pastor Willie Williams heads up the Top of the Bottom Ministry. He believes the razor wire outlining the apartment complex is dangerous and psychologically damaging to the community that lives on the other side of the wall.

“These kids are still waking up every morning and it’s looking like a concentration camp,” Williams said.

For years, the pastor has fought to have the razor wire removed. Recently, he received permission from the property’s owner—the complex has belonged to DM Oakwood Terrace LLC, based in Plano, Tex., since 2008—to remove the wall.

“If we want to remove it,” he paraphrased a letter from the company, “we can remove it.”

Although Williams is now faced with trying to come up with $5,000 to have the razor wire removed, he’s considering this a victory. At this point, he doesn’t feel like squabbling about who’s picking up the tab.

“I’ve been fighting five years to get it removed,” the pastor said. “It may take two or three more if we go to court.”

Williams has not attempted to have the concrete wall itself removed. He thinks that might be too big of a hurdle; perhaps the cold, gray wall could be painted as a enormous mural.

“We can’t try to tackle no wall—look at it like a gated community,” he said. “But the wire is an opportunity.”

The men sitting out front of Oakwood Terrace would consider the removal of the razor wire as an unshackling or sorts. It would mean that children filing out from behind the prison-like wall for the school bus in the mornings wouldn’t be teased by their peers for living in the compound. It would mean the fire department, or law enforcement, would have more than one access to the sprawling grounds.

Removing the wire would probably also increase the number of visitors residents see. Currently, the men explained, family and friends prefer to stay away from the intimidating property.

“The first thing they see—concrete and razor wire,” explained one of the men. “They don’t wanna go in.”

If he’s successful in securing the needed funds, the pastor hopes to have the razor wire down this summer. He’s estimating that the work itself will take about a week to complete.

When—or, rather if—Truman Arms—or, rather Oakwoods Terrace—has its razor parameter removed, the pastor is planning a celebration at the apartment complex. He wants to have the razor itself cut into souvenirs for the property’s long-time residents.

“We’ll give them a snippet of this wire,” Williams said.

Third-Cent Question

Fat on BP penance money last year, the Pensacola area saw great tourism numbers. With the extra funds inflating tourism-marketing coffers to a level toping $5 million, Visit Pensacola—the marketing arm of the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce—was able to better advertise the area.

Now, area hoteliers are wanting to keep the party rolling. To that end, Chamber officials visited the Escambia County Commission June 14 to request the board up its contribution so that marketing efforts may continue at the level the tourism community has grown accustomed to.

“So, things are really continuing to look very good—everything is indicating that we’re going to have another really good year,” Terry Scruggs, who heads up Visit Pensacola, told the board. “All that’s left is the last piece of the puzzle, it’s the money, and that’s in your hands.”

What Scruggs was requesting was the entire first three cents of the 4-cent bed tax. Each cent generates more than $1.5 million annually. Although allocating the third cent to tourism marketing would keep those efforts at post-BP levels, it would also mean that the county would have to yank its funding from the Pensacola Civic Center (which currently gets that third cent).

Commissioners decided to hold off on diving into the matter until their next meeting, or perhaps the one after that. The body will most likely decide in July whether or not to throw more money at tourism marketing.

Escambia County Administrator Randy Oliver said Monday that it may not be as simple as robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“Here’s gonna be the thing with the civic center,” Oliver explained, “they’ve made contractual commitments now for certain things.”

In order to accommodate the tourism community, the administrator said the commissioners would either need to cut it out of the budget they’ve already trimmed more than $9 million from, or generate additional revenues. One way to accomplish the latter would be to add a fifth cent to the 4-cent bed tax.

Although they did not delve very far into the bed-tax debate at the June 14 commission meeting, the board did briefly address service level employees—the backbone of the tourism industry. Commissioner Marie Young inquired of tourism officials if they had considered offering better wages to low level employees in light of the increased revenue the industry was seeing in the wake of the BP money.

“What are we doing about the people who work in the hotels—to do away with poverty?” asked Young. “Has anyone ever taken a look at that?”

The commissioner said that she knew people working in the service industry who pulled in low wages consistently for “10 or 15 years.”

“They can just expect those salaries for ever and ever?” she asked.

“I would have to defer to the hotel industry,” replied Scruggs. “They’re the ones that have to remain competitive and do the hiring.”

Young told Scruggs that she considered the matter important and didn’t “know how we can get around not considering that.” The tourism chief nodded blankly until Commissioner Grover Robinson—a one-time busboy at the Holiday Inn on Pensacola Beach—came to the industry’s defense, calling Young’s line of questioning “somewhat unfair.”