WHAT IF As the November 2010 Election Day approaches, Pensacola is firmly entrenched as the economic engine of the Gulf Coast. The hope and dreams that its citizens had for the past decade exceeded everyone’s expectations.
The Pensacola Pelicans completed their second season in the Suntrust Stadium leading the league in attendance while winning the championship series. The maritime museum opened this summer to record crowds. Sofitel has broken ground on its first luxury hotel and convention center on the Gulf Coast, and W.L Gore & Associates has nearly completed its new headquarters for its 6,000 employees across the street on the site of the Main Street Sewage plant that was closed in 2004.
The downtown Pensacola technology park has expanded. Intuit, the maker of Quickbooks, has joined Appriver and Avalex in this commerce park next to the newly-renovated Pensacola Civic Center.
While the rest of the nation is suffering a recession, Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are booming. Unemployment rates match that of Austin, Texas–7.2 percent. In fact, Pensacola has being called the “Austin of the Southeast.”
Leading the economic boom has been the growth of minority businesses and the improvements in the public school system
In 2002, the Pensacola City Council, Escambia County Commission, Emerald Coast Utility Authority and the Public School District jointly funded a disparity study that became the basis for their minority inclusion procurement programs. At the time less than five percent of all purchases of good and service and construction were done with minority-owned firms. Today, that percentage has jumped to over thirty percent.
Subsequently, the percentage of people living below the poverty level has dropped to single digits and the reports of gang violence are rare. Instead of asking for money from city and county governments, the Gulf Coast African-American Chamber of Commerce is one of the largest contributors to the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce’s Vision 2015 initiative.
Escambia County has only one “C” school. The rest are “A’s” and “B’s.” The Pensacola Promise scholarship program, which was originally funded by Energy Services of Pensacola, has provided every high school graduate an opportunity to attend Pensacola State College or the University of West Florida. Intuit and W.L. Gore have now completely endowed the program, crediting Pensacola Promise for attracting them to the Pensacola area.
The other attraction for economic development is the state-of-the-art public library system. After the Pensacola City Council finished the $10-million downtown library and auditorium in 2002, it embarked on an ambitious new library construction program. Instead of using their local option sales tax dollars for computers and police cars, the city and county put the funds into improving the area’s literacy rate.
The new libraries, as well as the school board’s decision to allow its abandoned schools to be converted to community centers, are credited with improving the county’s FCAT scores.
The Pensacola to which these two companies have relocated is much larger than it was in 2000. The city began an ambitious annexation program in 2001 and the city limits now stretch north to Ten Mile Road and west to Blue Angel Parkway. The city’s millage rate has dropped 20 percent and the new city residents are pleased with the greater police and fire protection. With less unincorporated area to cover, the Escambia County Commission has cut its budget and is able to reduce its tax rates, too.
Dream little and only little things will be achieved. It’s time to dream big.