It’s doubtful that back in 2009 the proponents for the city charter pictured a rookie politician and untested business executive as Pensacola’s first strong mayor. Ashton Hayward was the surprise winner, beating out the incumbent Mayor Mike Wiggins, Councilwoman Diane Mack and another “youngster,” Charles Bare.
Hayward’s first two years have been a roller coaster, but despite the melodrama and backroom politics, he has delivered Pensacola voters what they have craved the most since Hurricane Ivan—change.
The halfway point in his administration may be too early to judge whether all the change has been good, but it is appropriate to look back and review what has happened, both the good and bad.
Mayor Hayward is a big-picture kind of guy. He talks big, smiles big, has big ideas. Unfortunately, the devil usually resides in the details.
The first two years of the mayor’s term have been full of mud and blood. And while he has been squarely the focus of many of these battles, Hayward maintains his cool almost to the point of being oblivious.
When Occupy Pensacola pursued him from the city hall lawn into the courtroom, Hayward appeared unphased. When his feud with Pensacola City Council reached boiling point after boiling point, Hayward wondered what all the fuss was about.
When the police union painted him as a “disheveled” bully, Hayward thanked them as contract negotiations wrapped up.
Such an above-the-fray mentality can be frustrating in the trenches, especially when it appears the mayor is as detached from day-to-day operations as he is from controversy.
That said, this approach seems to be working for Hayward. The mayor has been able to claim a victory in the Occupy lawsuit, has somewhat crash-landed his troubles with council and, in December, reached an agreement with the police union that bettered the city’s pension obligations.
Citizens, meanwhile, seem pleased enough with Hayward’s style. The Pensacola Young Professional’s 2012 Quality of Life Survey offered the mayor a thumbs-up on the direction he was steering the city. His approval rating has risen steadily from 70 percent in 2011 to 76 percent this past year.
Much of Hayward’s leadership qualities may be waiting to make themselves known during the second half of his term. While the first two years have been packed with advisory boards—for downtown, for pension reform, for the port—the next two will reveal what actions the mayor will take based on such advice.
In October 2011, Mayor Hayward announced that UPS would be moving its regional sorting facility to Pensacola. It was a good day for economic development in the area. And a good day for Hayward, as the mayor has placed pronounced emphasis on the mission of economic development.
Economic development means basically two things: jobs and an increased tax base. Pensacola needs both, and Hayward appears to have a passion for the effort.
And while the mayor often speaks of the importance of economic development, success of such an effort is sometimes difficult to measure. There has been more sizzle than actual jobs created… yet.
Last April, Hayward convinced the Pensacola City Council to forgive a nearly $80,000 loan to the Downtown Improvement Board, contending the move was needed so that Pen Air Federal Credit Union could be given parking spaces when it moved downtown. Pen Air was to purchase the historic Thiesen Building on Palafox, renovate it and fill it with more than 110 medium-income employees.
Currently, no credit union employees have been moved into the building and Pen Air officials have indicated they’re in no rush to get downtown. Their option to purchase—currently Pen Air leases—expires this spring.
In May, Hayward announced Majestic Candies Company was opening up in July on West Government Street with intentions to hire about 100 employees by 2014. When asked in late June, Majestic officials said July had been pushed to August, but still 30 employees by year’s end. Currently, there appears to be little work happening at the site.
Similar snags and delays have happened with the proposed Hubbs-SeaWorld fish hatchery (May 2011) and the expansion of Hixardt Technologies near city hall (October 2011). Neither has come to fruition.
This past November, Hayward geared up to announce 100 jobs coming to the Port of Pensacola. The so-called ‘Project High Hat’ apparently involved a company that services offshore vessels and was connected to a $2 million Florida Department of Transportation grant awarded to the port for infrastructure improvements. The ‘High Hat’ announcement has yet to be made.
There have also been rumors of a new employer coming to the Pensacola International Airport. While the project has been discussed in public meetings—with area officials alluding to the potential for 1,000 jobs in the long run—Hayward’s public information office has stated that the city is unaware of such a deal.