It’s a beautiful, bright blue Saturday morning and the Palafox Market is stretched out and sunning itself along three downtown blocks. Nestled somewhere in the midst of the market’s encampment of vendor tents, Maggie is comfortable in the shade.
Maggie is a 10-year-old black Shepard-mix. And she’s not supposed to be here.
“Only farmers’ market I’ve been to that doesn’t allow dogs,” says John.
Like Maggie, John declines to give a last name. He and his family aren’t looking for trouble. They’re looking for a mellow Saturday at the market. With their dog.
“We still bring her,” says Emily, holding one of the couple’s small children.
John motions up and down the market row. Sunlight filters through the trees as people stroll from one booth to the next.
“It’s just an outdoorsy thing,” he says. “You want to bring your dog.”
Dogs are not strangers to Pensacola’s downtown market. They have accompanied their two-legged friends to the market since its inception. They socialize, appreciate the art and sniff each other’s butts.
But recently, dog owners have been greeted with signs posted around the market. They are silly and colorful, featuring hearts and balloons. There’s a cartoon dog, and what looks to be a parrot. There’s a cat wearing a bow tie. All smiles.
But the message on the signs is clear: no pets. The sign cites city of Pensacola code ordinance 4-2-33(b). It directs people to the market’s informational table in Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza.
Maggie hasn’t had a problem so far.
“Dirty looks,” shrugged John.
Other dogs seemed to be fairing alright as well. Maggie watched as a fellow dog trotted past one of the cartoon signs and proceeded toward MLK plaza and right past the market’s information table.
Manning the table was Hilary Gilles. She manages the market for the Pensacola Downtown Improvement Board.
“The police are not going to come and impound every dog here,” Gilles explained. “But they could if they wanted to.”
A few days earlier, she had elaborated. It wasn’t the first time she had needed to explain the new signs.
“It’s a city ordinance, it’s part of the permit,” Gilles said. “I know it’s not great PR, so we’re just trying to be positive about it.”
The market manager said that the no-pets signs were posted to let people know about the city ordinance.
“We’re not enforcing it, we’re just letting people know,” she explained. “If they were to enforce it, it’s not even a ticket—they could come and put it in the pound.”
Gilles said that the decision was made to post the signs as a result of complaints made to the DIB. There were apparently incidents of dogs “peeing on the artwork and vegetables.”
“More stuff like that started happening,” Gilles said. “People are shopping, they’re busy and talking to friends and the dog lifts their leg and pees on a watermelon.”
The market manager also attributed the recent focus on dogs to the event’s growth. What used to be a sleepy Saturday gathering is now a thriving, crowd-filled carnival.
“The market has grown and has become so successful,” Gilles said. “There’s just growing pains.”
The market manager caught wind of a rumor that it was her personal decision to come down on dogs at the market. She flinches at the notion.
“I was like, ‘No, I’ve got three dogs, no, I don’t think so,’” Gilles said, describing her pets as “my family and my life.”
She said she understands why people want to bring their dogs to the market.
“Pet’s are people’s family and this is a family place,” the manager said, stressing that the market is “not, not pet-friendly.”
The signs, she said, are a courtesy to the public. To let them know the possible consequences.
“Until the ordinance is changed, that’s what we have to do,” said Gilles.
Since the signs began sprouting at the downtown market, the feedback has been mixed. Gilles pegs it at “50-50.”
She recalled a recent email from someone thanking the DIB for cracking down on dogs. They were happy that art and vegetables would not be peed on, and that aggressive animals would not be disrupting the market.
“And three minutes later I get an email saying, ‘You’re not pet-friendly, I’m never coming back,’” Gilles noted.
Starting the Dialogue
The city ordinance cited on the market signs forbids animals at permitted events. In order to hold a pet-friendly event, a slew of conditions—such as an on-site paramedic and special insurance coverage—must first be met.
City of Pensacola Spokesman Derek Cosson said that the city has not received any complaints regarding dogs at the Palafox Market. He said that any enforcement of the cited ordinance would not stem from the city, but rather Escambia County Animal Control, via an interlocal agreement the city has with the county.
Any enforcement would most likely be triggered by a complaint. If the authorities responded to a problem-dog, they would also respond to other dogs at the event.
“If they tell the pit bull to leave,” Gilles explained, “they’re going to tell the chihuahua in the purse to go.”
Pensacola City Councilman Brian Spencer, whose district the market falls within, has heard of the market’s dog-debate. Asked about it after a recent city council meeting, he seemed puzzled—isn’t the market pet-friendly?
He whipped out his iPad and fired off an email to City Administrator Bill Reynolds. The councilman is wondering if the downtown market can simply be declared dog-friendly, essentially overriding the ordinance.
“That’s starting the dialogue, don’t you think?” Spencer smiled.
The next morning, Cosson said Reynolds had yet to reply to the councilman’s query.
“But the answer will essentially be yes,” the spokesman explained. “The city council could amend the ordinance in question at any time to create an exemption for Palafox Market or otherwise provide for inclusion of dogs in that or any other event.”
If council went that direction, it would be good news for The Spotted Dog. Located a few blocks down Palafox from the market, the business has been impacted by the recent dog-flap.
Co-owner Ashley Dickerson described how market patrons routinely drifted into her shop. With their dogs in tow.
“It’s kind of like their Saturday thing to do—go to the market, then come down here,” she said.
The storeowner points to larger urban areas that embrace dogs. The pets are viewed not as nuisances, but as family.
“Pensacola is definitely behind dog-friendly places,” Dickerson said. “We need to catch up.”