Pensacola, Florida
Monday October 14th 2019

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It’s About Us

By Rick Outzen

A year ago, the Pensacola News Journal and Studer Community Institute announced the formation of the Center for Civic Engagement that would help educate and empower citizens to make their communities better. In January, Terry Horne, former PNJ publisher and regional president for the USA Today Network, returned to Pensacola to serve as the center’s first director.

Sitting in an empty classroom off the lobby of the recently renovated SCI building, Horne shared his thoughts on how the center will build on the success of CivicCon, the speaker series that has brought to the community nationally-known experts to discuss growth management, economic development, walkability and other topics.

The most recent forum featured Peter Kageyama, author of “For Love of Cities.” Over 200 people gathered at the Sanders Beach Community Center, and more than 6,300 others viewed the live stream of Kageyama’s talk about how to do their own creative things to make Pensacola a better place to live.

Horne said, “The speakers that we bring in talk about how to make great cities, how we can continue to make our community more special for all of us.”

The improvements might make Pensacola more attractive to tourists, but that’s not the center’s mission.

“This ought to be about us, about the people who live here,” said Horne. “And that’s the way we’re approaching it—not to make it a tourist destination but to make an incredible place for all of us to live and work and raise our families and have fun.”

In the coming months, Horne plans on hosting speakers on some of Pensacola’s toughest issues—education, homelessness and panhandling. He wants to divide education into early childhood education and post-high school education for people that drop out of high school to learn trades. He also plans to treat homelessness and panhandling as separate issues.

Horne said, “There’s all kinds of different homeless, all kinds of different reasons for panhandling. I think maybe we need speakers for both.”

He is reviewing a list of 11 speakers to discuss homelessness and panhandling. The challenge is to find speakers that are not just subject-matter experts but also are motivational.

“When we’re choosing speakers, we try to get people with great information,” Horne shared, “but also somebody that’s motivational so that when we’re done, we want to act on what they talk about.”

Education & Advocacy
The Center for Civic Engagement will take the civic conversations that are started during the CivicCon presentations and help develop action plans to implement them. The center will help educate citizens to be their own best advocates, hold their leaders accountable and organize with their neighbors to build stronger communities.

Horne has been setting up a curriculum of courses on topics such as public records, effective advocacy and neighborhood associations, and he has asked CivicCon participants to vote on the ones they would like to see first.

He said, “We’re saying, ‘Here are 15 courses that have been suggested by you and regular CivicCon attendees. Rank order them for us so we can select four that we can get up and going right away.’ After we get those up and going, we’ll do the next four that we’ll rank order them, and so on.”

The center will also help citizens navigate through the bureaucracies of local government and better advocate for their causes.

“For example, somebody has something they’re advocating for, and they feel that City Hall isn’t helping them,” Horne said. “Well, they can come to us, and we can figure out how they can get around whatever they perceive as an obstacle. It may be just a communication problem, and they don’t know who to go talk to. They went to the wrong person, but we’ll help them negotiate that kind of thing.”

To help Horne with the advocacy component, recently retired County Administrator Jack Brown has joined the institute as associate director.

“I’m glad to have him. The guy knows so much about how government works in Florida,” said Horne. “Jack knows how to do things here much better than me. I know how to do it really well in Arizona because I was there the last umpteen years, but in Florida, I still got ropes to learn. I’m really, really happy that Jack wanted to be a part of this.”

Shared Language
Horne has been impressed with the mutual vocabulary of many of the CivicCon participants.

“There have been two or three times when I’ve heard people either say or write in emails our shared language, the need for narrow streets, walkability and bikeability,” he said. “There’s a large alignment, if you will, around those key things. And when those things come up in conversation, I never hear anybody from the CivicCon group say, ‘Oh, that’s not important.’ Those things seem to matter to people.”

Horne believes people want to continue to build a great downtown. He said, “The SCAPE waterfront project can be a catalyst to continue to make downtown a showcase.”

In February, the Center for Civic Engagement invited SCAPE, an urban design firm with studios in New York and New Orleans, to reimagine Pensacola’s downtown waterfront from the Pensacola Bay Bridge to Joe Patti’s Seafood. Mayor Grover Robinson has contributed additional funds to extend the study to Sanders Beach.

The landscape architects will share their thoughts at a  CivicCon event on April 22 at the Sanders Beach Community Center. Last month, Horne and Mayor Robinson visited New York City to get a peek at the drawings.

“Right now, you walk along Bayfront Parkway on a tiny little sidewalk close to the road,” said Horne. “It’s scary because the cars drive so fast, so SCAPE has a great idea—and we’ll see if it survives the final planning—to widen the walkway, keep the lanes and narrow the median so that there’s space for people, not just cars.”

He said the designs didn’t appear to be expensive.

“Everything that they presented was a reflection I think of what people in Pensacola were saying,” he said. “It’s doable and won’t cost some ridiculous number. And it can be done in stages that I think will make a big difference.”

He continued, “Their concepts for Bruce Beach are super exciting, and their concepts for the walkway from the bridge to Bartram Park, very, very exciting. But it’s not going to break the bank.”

Horne believes the next few years are critical for Pensacola. The decisions made will set the community’s course for decades.

“A hard lesson that we’ve all learned is when you got something that shouldn’t ever have been built in a place, it’s tough to plan around it,” said Horne. “As we continue to fill in areas downtown and work in neighborhoods, we have got to be really sure that we don’t put something in that’s a wrong thing.”

He added, “As we think about the vision of the city and the county, we also must think about what we don’t want and what does fit the vision of what we want this place to be.”