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Wednesday April 16th 2014

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Outtakes 2/10/11

LOST OPPORTUNITIES Pensacola has been jokingly called “The Land of Potential,” but it really is “The Land of Missed Opportunities.” People complain about the lack of jobs, shrinking military presence and loss of political and economic power along the Florida Panhandle, but they fail to understand that their root causes can be linked to missed opportunities years and decades ago.

In 1967, Jacksonville and Duval County voted to consolidate their governments. Three years later in 1970, Pensacola and Escambia County did not. Within two years of consolidation, the new Jacksonville repaved every road. It cleaned up St. Johns River by eliminating sewer outfalls that were dumping almost 20 million gallons of untreated sewage a day. It invested $60 million into downtown redevelopment efforts that in turn attracted about $200 million in private construction. It lowered property taxes each of the first nine years. Pensacola and Escambia County wouldn’t deal with its downtown sewage treatment plant and launch a focused downtown redevelopment plan until over 30 years later.

In the 1990s, attorney M.J. Menge tried to convince Escambia County Commissioners that they needed to buy up land around NAS Pensacola to protect the base from encroachment. They only made token purchases. Three years ago, the base graduated its last Aviation Officer Candidate class. The bulk of flight training has moved elsewhere.

It was during that decade that Congressman Joe Scarborough tried to get the chambers of commerce and elected officials from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to agree on a highway connector from Interstate 10 to Interstate 65 in Alabama. Part of the proposal was to extend Interstate 110 to Nine Mile Road and create a commerce park next to the University of West Florida. Leaders couldn’t agree. Instead, Bay County and the St. Joe Company took the initiative, and economic development shifted east of Escambia County.

The Westside Development Plan took nearly seven years of meeting, planning and debate to create. It contains 117 pages that outline a complete redevelopment of the west side of Pensacola, including community centers, library, new urban school, improved street lighting and sidewalks, and enhanced entrances into the city limits. The funding mechanism was to be a Community Redevelopment District, but when the property values failed to increase sufficiently to fund the plan, no one said a word. The plan, which embodied the hopes of that part of the community, was forgotten.

It took the 2010 mayoral race to spark interest in it again, but three years were lost–three years that have seen an increase in shootings, homicides and vandalism in those neighborhoods.

The Brownsville Middle School is yet another opportunity. Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas couldn’t agree on a purchase price. George Hawthorne has a contract, but has yet to raise the $2 million he needs to buy the property, develop 10 acres for Habitat for Humanity housing and redevelop the buildings.

The church planned to fund its programs with monies from its congregation and supporters. Hawthorne’s proposal is a for-profit venture that needs both investors and support from local agencies that will lease space on his campus.

The middle school is in a location that needs revitalization. Unfortunately, there is no real discussion being held as to how that property can be best used for the surrounding neighborhood. Rev. May and his church board saw possibilities for tutoring, daycare, after-school activities and a medical clinic. Hawthorne tried to merge a gang prevention plan with a family resource center. Thomas appears primarily interested in getting top dollar for the property, regardless of the buyer.

No one has asked the community what it truly wants. Because of that missing step, yet another opportunity to make a difference may be lost.

rick@inweekly.net