CHANGE COMES HARD I’m not sure that change is harder in Pensacola, but it surely seems so. For decades, a benevolent aristocracy took care of the town. White men met in offices behind closed doors and decided what needed to be done. A spokesman or front man was chosen and the public lined up behind him.
Some profited more than others from the decisions of the few, but everyone seemed to sleep well at night believing that their decisions were for the common good. The process was always controlled and few strayed.
Pensacola began to change in the 1990s. Area chambers sponsored Envision Escarosa, an inclusive visioning process created to make a unified community vision into reality by 2020. And while the group of over 170 citizens of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties produced a final document that sits on a shelf somewhere, the process upset the power brokers because they lost control of the outcome. The public refused to follow the “script,” which probably explains why it is rarely referenced by elected officials.
Pensacola officials didn’t learn from that process. Another huge committee was put together for development of the land across the street from Pensacola City Hall. Leaders controlled this better and got the result they wanted—a festival park and new auditorium on Pensacola Bay. As public hearings on the final plans were held, the public questioned the lack of mixed use and any potential for economic development. In the end, the “Trillium I” project was overturned by a referendum.
The Community Maritime Park almost started just as badly. Leaders met at Pensacola City Hall and talked about bringing the Pensacola Pelicans, a maritime museum and the University of West Florida onto the site to serve as magnets for private investment on the land and in downtown Pensacola.
The difference maker was Quint Studer, who insisted on public input and who paid to bring renowned urban planner Ray Gindroz into the process. The public liked what they saw, and the final plan has survived a referendum and two failed petition challenges. The project has been one of the most transparent in the history of Pensacola.
Still, community and government leaders overlook the public in their decision-making process. Last year’s consolidation effort is the perfect example. People want less government. They believe in the concept of consolidation, but the rush to meet the Jan. 15 deadline set by the Northwest Florida legislative delegation led the leaders of the study commission to omit public hearings on the final document. Consolidation is now effectively dead. The public lost trust in the process.
The world has changed. Technology and Florida’s public record laws make it possible for the public to know nearly as much about an issue as the people they elect. People don’t rely solely on the media for their news. Backroom deals won’t stay hidden long.
Ideas can exist outside of the boardrooms of a select few. Those ideas are created by whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, males, females, young and old, and those ideas that are generated must be explained and vetted by the public.
Change is no longer coming. It’s here, and we have more say than ever before.