It’s a sunny Saturday and downtown Pensacola is bustling. People—young, old, black, white, families with babies in strollers, couples holding hands—are leisurely moving up and down Palafox Street.
The day started early with football fans rooting in Seville Quarter for Norte Dame and the Naval Academy as the teams kicked off in Dublin, Ireland. The Palafox Market cranked up at 8 a.m. drawing a different, more eclectic crowd to downtown that strolled through tents of handcrafts, artwork, produce and baked goods.
By 3 p.m. the sports bars, New York Nick’s, Helen Back and World of Beer, are packed with patrons watching Florida, Florida State, Southern Mississippi and Georgia play their season openers. People are at the bar in Nick’s hoping a table will free up before the big games kickoff—Clemson versus Auburn, Michigan versus Alabama.
Across the street, Hopjacks is feeding baseball fans that will soon catch the Seville trolley to Maritime Park and watch the Blue Wahoos finish up their inaugural season before yet another sellout crowd.
The activity adds validation to Better Pensacola Forum/Pensacola Young Professionals’ latest Quality of Life survey that showed that 52 percent of county residents and a whopping 89 percent of those living inside the Pensacola city limits believe our community is headed in the right direction.
While there is a gap between the confidence levels for residents about the directions of the city and county, the percentages for both are impressive considering how the national polls are so much more negative.
Only 28 percent of likely U.S. voters say the country is heading in the right direction, according to the Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey taken the week ending Sunday, August 26.
“There is a national pessimism,” said Jim Hizer, Greater Pensacola Chamber CEO, over lunch at New York Nick’s. “In this sluggish national recovery, the contrast for Pensacola and Escambia County is remarkable.”
Step Back Five Years
That wasn’t always the case. Five years ago, the only restaurant on South Palafox open on Saturday afternoons was New York Nick’s. There were no Hopjacks, Tin Cow, Nacho Daddy’s, Leisure Club or World of Beers. The Palafox Market was in its first summer.
The Community Maritime Park Associates board was deciding between two developer groups to build the maritime park that had been approved by referendum two years earlier. The actual construction wouldn’t begin until two years later.
The Pensacola City Council was considering a charter commission to review its charter that had been in place since 1930. A year later, that commission would recommend a strong-mayor form of government that Pensacola voters approved by referendum, setting the stage for Ashton Hayward to be elected the first strong mayor in 2010.
The results of the first survey in 2008, which was conducted by the national polling firm Mason-Dixon Polling Research, showed only 22 percent in Escambia and 23 percent in Pensacola believed the community was on the right track.
Pensacola businessman Quint Studer, former Pensacola Mayor Jerry Maygarden, bank president Carol Carlan and financial adviser John Hosman were the four members of the non-profit Better Pensacola Forum (BPF) that commissioned the study.
When the IN interviewed Maygarden in 2008, the BPF executive director said, “These results border on despair.”
Mason-Dixon Polling Research had conducted similar polls for other communities. Larry Harris, principal of the company, said he never had seen lower overall satisfaction scores. He told the IN that the only communities where he had found similar low ratings were in the Rust Belt.
“The survey finds that you have an anxious and dissatisfied community and electorate,” said Harris in a 2008 telephone interview. “I do this kind of work all over the country and yes, you’ll get low ratings in areas in the Rust Belt, but they have leadership to meet the challenges.”
When Mason-Dixon asked about the economy and whether residents thought it would improve, deteriorate or stay the same in the next five years, the vast majority said it was going to stay the same or deteriorate.
“We asked why,” said Harris. “Seventy-plus percent of the people said leadership.”
The voters showed their concerns about leadership at the polls that year, voting out Sheriff Ron McNesby, County Commissioner Mike Whitehead, ECUA Board Member Logan Fink, and Councilmen Jack Nobles, Marty Donovan and Mike DeSorbo.
Filling Leadership Void
The City of Pensacola got strong, accountable leadership when Ashton Hayward was sworn into office in January 2011. The Mason-Dixon polls since then show that Pensacola residents believe he is leading the city in the right direction. The mayor’s approval rating has steadily increased, from 70 percent in 2011 to 76 percent this year.
Nearly nine out of 10 voters have confidence in the leadership and vision of city officials and 71 percent believe the new charter will improve the city.
John Peacock, who pushed in 2008 for the charter commission, believes the high approval ratings are due to the mayor being directly responsible to the voters.
“Mayor Hayward has done a great job,” said Peacock, over beers in his Baylen Street loft. “He has laid out a vision for Pensacola and is operating to accomplish that vision. Voters understand and appreciate accountability.”
Peacock and his wife recently moved from the Marcus Pointe area to downtown Pensacola. “We wanted to be a part of a vibrant and growing community,” he said. “That is happening in the city. The survey results validate that people feel comfortable with someone in charge that is accountable to the citizens.”
When pollster Larry Harris looked at the results for the first survey, he remarked that another reason for the low initial ratings was the lack of any tangible results for people.
“What you have in Escambia and Pensacola is a circular firing squad,” said Harris. “You’ve got a lot of good people working on committees and dedicating a lot of time and energy to issues, only to be shot down when they go to the powers that be.”
Mayor Ashton Hayward believes that he and the city council have changed that paradigm. He points to the improvements made to the final design of the Maritime Park; a beautiful pond between the stadium and Main Street and a first-class amphitheater; landscaping along A Street and Bayfront Parkway and the demolition and removal of the dilapidated Blount Middle School.
“We’ve taken the ball and run with it,” said Mayor Hayward. “These projects make people feel good about Pensacola.”
Hayward believes there is a new optimistic attitude. “People may not always like the leader, but they do like results,” said the mayor. “We are growing our city in the right way, with smart projects, and the city council deserves credit for passing the legislation to get it done.”
Andy Terhaar, who will be the new city councilman for District 3, has spent much of the past few weeks knocking on doors in his area. He agrees with the survey and the mayor.
“Pensacola has begun to pick up momentum over the past two years and I think the city residents are beginning to see that,” said Terhaar. “There is a lot of optimism in Pensacola right now.”
The Halo Effect
There is a halo effect for the county, at least among city residents. Pensacola voters’ have greater optimism for the county’s future direction with 76 percent saying the county is headed in the right direction. Those who live outside the city limits are less confident about both the county and city—rating 47 percent and 46 percent, respectively.
John Peacock believes it’s the structure of county government that may be a factor in the lower confidence rating. “In the county you get to vote for one commissioner,” said Peacock. “That means four people that you can’t vote for can alter your taxes and services without consequence. That is un-American.”
He thinks that the county lacks the accountability that the strong mayor gives city voters. “There is no clear plan in the county,” he said. “For the county to succeed there needs to be some direct accountability to the citizens. People will then lead the community forward.”
County Commissioner Grover Robinson disagrees. He says that the county has a plan and despite tough budgetary times is executing it. The problem is that it may take a few more years before citizens feel the positive impact of those decisions. He also blames the lack of coverage by the daily newspaper.
“We’re doing great things, handling difficult, significant budget issues and get little recognition for it,” said Commissioner Robinson. “The problem is that some of what we’ve done won’t fully be felt until five or six years from now.”
Fellow Commissioner Gene Valentino thinks the county is still battling perception issues that stem from ten years ago when W.D. Childers and three other county commissioners were indicted and removed from office.
“County residents have been conditioned and disappointed by more than a decade of bad behavior by its leaders,” said Commissioner Valentino. “They are more cautious than most, but that is changing. They never thought we would open the sports complex on Bauer Road or four-lane State Road 292, but we have.”
However Robinson, whose district is 60 percent inside the city limit, is grateful for the high confidence rating from city voters and isn’t resentful of Hayward’s accolades.
“It’s good that those constituents that live in the city believe we’re doing a good job,” he said. “The fact any elected official is seen in a favorable light is good for all of us. The county has changed dramatically since the W.D. Childers days, but that stigma still remains.”
Tangible Results Improve Perceptions
The high ratings for the City of Pensacola, Mayor Hayward and Escambia County are good for economic development, according to Chamber CEO Jim Hizer. The area finally has the tangible results that were lacking five years ago.
“The sense is our best days are ahead of us, which means that it’s more likely would-be and current investors are to invest or reinvest in this community,” said Hizer. “People feel good about the community. There is clearly optimism about the metropolitan area, particularly the City of Pensacola.”
Hizer believes that the Maritime Park, which opened in April, has contributed significantly to the optimism.
“The Community Maritime Park is clearly a quality of life enhancer,” he said. “It makes this area more attractive to those who live here now and to prospective investors.”
There are only 30 Major League Baseball affiliated Double A baseball teams. According to the chamber CEO, potential investors now see Pensacola as being on par with Jacksonville, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and Birmingham, Ala., which also have Double A teams.
“The symbolism of the park is invaluable and sends an important message about our community,” said Hizer. “We’ve had significant renovation and redevelopment in downtown Pensacola over the past few years, plus the demolition of ECUA’s Main Street facility. All show that we’re a community in transition and on the move.”
Economy and Jobs Matter
Since the very first Quality of Life survey, the economy and jobs have ranked as the top issues facing the area with over half of the residents in the city (51 percent) and county (58 percent) ranking them number one.
Holly Black, age 23, moved from Philadelphia, to Pensacola three years ago. “I saw the beach and fell in love,” said the World of Beer bartender.
She first moved to the west side, then Gulf Breeze and now lives in East Hill. “Pensacola is definitely moving in the right direction,” said Black, “but jobs are difficult to find. You are either in the service industry, in the military or a doctor or lawyer.”
Commissioner Robinson believes the county is making progress on the issue.
“We have positioned the county much better for economic development,” he told the IN. “We are looking at increasing the franchise fee for utilities to fund economic development. We need the funds to have an opportunity to compete for businesses, especially with Airbus building a huge facility in Mobile, Ala.”
Commissioner Valentino said that now more than ever he is optimistic about the economic development efforts. He said, “I’ve never been happier with the relationship between the city and county.”
He contends that today’s economic development initiative isn’t that different from the one he proposed three years ago and he still believes an independent authority may be needed.
“However, everyone is working well together,” he said, “and we’re moving in the right direction.”
Valentino is leaving for Berlin, Germany with chamber officials to talk with subcontractors for the new Airbus facility being built in Mobile, Ala.
“The air show there is the host for the 100-plus subcontractors in the Airbus supply chain network,” he said. “Airbus has mandated that these sub-contractors locate in a 100-mile radius around the Mobile plant. My mission is to bring forward over $50-million of funding strategies to several of them.”
Lumon May and Jerome Watson agree that jobs are important. May recently won the Democratic primary for County Commission, District 3 with 69 percent of the vote. Watson, a retired deputy school superintendent, is one of his campaign managers.
They want to make sure that the residents are adequately trained for the jobs the county, city and chamber are bringing to Pensacola. Sitting over cups of gumbo and fish sandwiches at The Oar House, the two shared their views garnered from months of campaigning inside and outside the city limits.
“It does us no good to bring jobs to our area that our people don’t have the training to perform,” said Watson. “If our schools, particularly our vocational schools, aren’t training our youth for the jobs needed, then we are only going to be importing more people to our area and not helping those already living here.”
Education was second on the list of concerns with scores of 16 percent for county and 11 percent for city residents.
“Good education is tied closely to economic development,” said May, who helped organize the jobs fairs for the stadium workers for the Blue Wahoos’ home games and helped the city hire its parking attendants for the Wahoo games. “Our neighborhoods will remain blighted and impoverished unless we can improve our schools and help people find jobs with livable wages.”
The chamber’s Vision 2015 has a goal of creating 3,000 jobs in this community. Hizer is confident that they will exceed that number. But what are the steps that can be taken to propel this area over the next 20 years?
The chamber has launched the process to create a two-county strategic marketing plan, an initiative that some of the most successful communities have being doing for the past 30 to 50 years, according to Hizer.
“It’s the next evolution of Vision 2015,” said the chamber CEO. “We have to decide what steps to take today that will ultimately move our community forward in the long-term.”
He believes that 3,000 jobs will be old news very soon. “What we will be focusing on is how to make this community economically viable for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “We need to develop a plan and determine the incremental steps to get us where we want to go.”
The Future is Now
The Pensacola Young Professionals are bullish on Pensacola and they believe that the survey reflects that those outside the under-40 age bracket agree.
“We see tangible results and we want more of it,” said Rachael Gillette, PYP’s director. “We’ve bought into the strong mayor and see what is happening—improvements in the neighborhoods, at the airport and along the waterfront—and we want to be a part of it.”
For PYP, the talk about the potential of Pensacola has become tiresome.
“We believe in this city and what is happening now,” said Gillette. “The potential is now, not five years from now.”
PYP is optimistic about Pensacola and Gillette believes that the majority of Pensacola and Escambia County residents agree.
“Things are good now and we want to make them even better.”
Quality of Life Survey Process
The Better Pensacola Forum was formed by Quint and Rishy Studer in 2008 to gauge the attitudes of Escambia County and Pensacola voters toward local issues, expectations, leadership and plans for the future. The survey was intended to be a tool for policymakers to choose wisely and as an independent measurement for accountability.
Mason-Dixon Polling and Research has conducted the survey every year since 2008. The cost for the 2012 survey is $25,000, which the Studers donated. Mason-Dixon conducts across-the-country voter surveys for news media, advocacy groups and other organizations. Its media clients include over 250 local television affiliates and over 100 daily newspapers.
In March 2011, Better Pensacola Forum formed an alliance with Pensacola Young Professionals that agreed to takeover the annual Quality of Life surveys. The PYP
Economic Development and Governmental Affairs committees oversee the survey.
“The process is really year round,” said Rachael Gillette, PYP director. “We rolled out the 2011 survey at a big event last August, primarily because we wanted to announce PYP’s partnership with Better Pensacola Forum.”
For the next four or five months, PYP published white papers and produced webisodes on the 2011 survey results. In April and May, the survey questions were reviewed and turned over to Mason-Dixon.
“The main questions have stayed consistent since 2008,” said Gillette. “The vast majority has not changed.”
Mason-Dixon conducted a telephone poll of 800 registered voters from July 25-28. Larry Harris, the Mason-Dixon principal that has managed all five surveys, has told the IN that the sample fairly reflects the demographics of the county with an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
“It’s the integrity of the survey that is critical,” said Chip Henderson of Emagination Unlimited, which is helping publicize the survey. “Other surveys for cities our size usually sample about 300 people, which is considered by experts to be a statistical, reliable sample. The Quality of Life survey goes way beyond that and polls 800 people.”
Gillette added, “When PYP accepted the partnership with the Better Pensacola Forum and agreed to manage the survey, we wanted to keep the study objective. We have seen its value, because you can’t change what you don’t measure.”
Henderson does believe that those who do a good job of communicating what they are doing may do better on the survey, but there are limits to press releases and marketing campaigns.
“Perception is reality,” said the advertising executive, “but one’s personal experiences temper that perception. A marketing campaign that conflicts with personal experiences isn’t effective.”
Both Gillette and Henderson believe that the Quality of Life survey has kept its objectivity. “There is no hidden agenda. This survey is about as objective as it can be. The numbers are the numbers, which makes this an integrity-filled process,” said Henderson.
“The survey is a legitimate benchmark.”
The 2012 Quality of Life Survey can be found online at pensacolayp.com.