Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday October 21st 2014

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Pensacola, Pet Friendly?

by Jessica Forbes

In some ways, Pensacola appears pet friendly enough. Around downtown and parks throughout the city, people often stroll with their leashed dogs and dine with them at pet-friendly restaurants.

This spring, however, many pet owners were surprised when signs popped up at Palafox Market notifying patrons that bringing a pet to the market was a violation of City Ordinance 4-2-33 (b).

Previously, the market had seemed to be a very pet-friendly environment full of canine companions alongside their owners.  The signs’ message, although surprising to many, is accurate:  In the City of Pensacola, it is illegal to have your pet at a public gathering, including festivals and fairs.

While rarely—if ever—enforced at the Palafox Market, the signs and lack of enforcement have created an air of uncertainty around where and when pets are allowed.

“A lot of people were upset about the market,” said Ashley Dickerson, co-owner of The Spotted Dog on Palafox Street. “We’ve had a lot of people say that that was their Saturday thing to do—they could bring their dog to the market and then maybe go eat lunch downtown somewhere afterward.”

Dickerson and her mother Sandy opened The Spotted Dog a little over two years ago.

As far as Pensacola’s pet-friendliness, “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say [Pensacola’s] probably a 5 or a 6,” said Dickerson, who cites St. Augustine as one of the more pet friendly places she’s been. “It’s amazing. People bring their dogs everywhere—beaches, downtown—it’s no big deal.”

Local Motion
Earlier this year, the IN covered the market shake up and, at the time, city officials indicated a fix might be quick and forthcoming (“No-Dog Day Afternoon,” April 18, 2013). At that time, former City of Pensacola spokesman Derek Cosson said, “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.” Councilman Spencer began a dialogue with then City Administrator Bill Reynolds, who was terminated in July.

Since then, city council members have determined that the Downtown Improvement Board (DIB), which administers the Palafox Market, would need to be included in the discussion as well.

“I’m unaware of any progress at staff level,” said Brian Spencer, city council member for District 6, who believes the way forward, “involves looking at a city ordinance as well as DIB’s role as a steward of the Palafox Market.”

Likewise, Charles Bare, the at-large city council member for District B, is unaware of any proposals to change the pet ordinance, but notes that enforcement of the law is almost unheard of.

“The ordinance provides that animals shall be impounded, but I have not heard of any animals being taken during the Palafox Market,” explained Bare. “I have even seen city employees violating the ordinance.”

Spencer, within whose district the market is located, speaks proudly of the market’s success and the regional, even national attention it is receiving.

“The challenge is the success has resulted in a high concentration of many attendees. That isn’t necessarily conducive for the sharing of a tight space with animals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the simple solution is to prohibit animals,” Spencer said.

Spencer, who currently represents the City Council on the DIB, believes the first step to addressing the question of allowing pets at the Palafox Market would be to conduct a poll to determine the popularity of the idea.

“I think it is imperative to conduct a poll of the market vendors who are paying for their rights and their spaces to sell product,” said Spencer, who believes canvasing attendees would be helpful as well. “Let’s use that opportunity to invite them to participate in the dialogue. I can’t help but think some of them will offer solutions that we may not have thought of.”

Spencer suggested that perhaps the Special Events Committee of the DIB may be a suitable venue to begin discussions, and maybe even enlist a consultant who could develop a non-biased questionnaire.

“Great cities seem to be embracing a growing population of dog, pet lovers,” Spencer stated. “I think we need to be creative in our solutions, which might include opening up the streets abutting the actual median.”

Health and safety standards should be considered when devising any changes, according to both Spencer and Bare.

“I think identification of a city as pet-friendly is positive, but it must be balanced with public safety,” Bare believes. “There is an ever-evolving recipe for maintaining a community that provides opportunities for current and future residents… I believe pet-friendliness may be part of this recipe, but we are always one dog bite away from crossing that line.”

Moving Forward
The Spotted Dog has had a booth at the Palafox Market for several months, and many of their fellow vendors support changing the ordinance, according to Dickerson. “There are probably a handful of vendors at the market that don’t want [dogs] there, but most of them do because they know it brings more people, customers.”

In Bare’s opinion the best steps for the public to take would be contacting council members, the DIB, and/or the mayor, “who ultimately enforces the ordinances.”

“I would ask residents to contact me with their comments, positive or negative,” said Bare.

As far as broader pet-friendly issues, Dickerson believes other downtown businesses “are open to the idea of making it more pet friendly. And I do know a lot of people, especially residents of the downtown area, who would love a dog park down here.”

Small changes could help the pet-friendly mission, Dickerson believes, “What we need are poop bag dispensers downtown. There aren’t any anywhere. You can walk your dog downtown, there’s nothing against that, so maybe if we took certain efforts to keep it clean, then the people who are opposed wouldn’t have anything to argue about.”

While looking to progressive urban examples like San Francisco and New York may make local conditions seem discouraging, it seems Dickerson’s experience in St. Augustine may indicate a change moving through Florida, a state with cities that rarely rank among the country’s most dog-friendly.

Spencer mentioned a city planning expert who spoke at a state wide conference recently held in Pensacola who encourages communities to support dog friendly events and legislation. “His reasoning was that dogs on the street with their owners tended to break down the socio-economic barriers,” Spencer stated. “A dog was the perfect door-opener for strangers getting to know one another.”

Having personally experienced the power of pets to unite people and build community, Spencer stated, “I want to promote more dog-related activities downtown.” As for the market, Spencer says the way forward will require consideration. “We look at it as a venue, a space and the physical limitations, and see if there are some modifications that should be made to optimize the introduction of dogs and to give this enhancement a fair chance.”