Pensacola, Florida
Friday June 23rd 2017


Plain as Black & White?

by J. Adam Morrison

Is Escambia Countys government tinged with racism? The short answer, it seems, is no. But the longer versionstill spilling out of a can of worms opened by Escambia County Commissioner Marie Young during a May 19 meetingdefies yes-or-no simplicity.

I am not here to pull what some people call the race card, Young told her fellow commissioners. But sometimes the stage is set, where you cant help but wonder about the perception that is there.

The issue at handwhich was ultimately tabled until the Commissions June 2 meetingwas the allocation of $4.38 million provided by BP to boost tourism following the companys 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Young wondered why a minority-focused event was not among the recommended recipients.

I thought we were way past that, Commission Chairman Kevin White said a week after the meeting.

The trunk of William Cadillac Banks car is a tidy collection of accordion folders brimming with artists riders and promotional material. He digs out a postcard advertising an upcoming R. Kelly concert hes helping produce.

If I had enough money Id really put this city on the map, Banks had proclaimed earlier on the phone.

When hes not working as a law clerk for Pensacola attorney William Richbourg, Banks produces local concerts and events. He presented a proposal for a two-day music festival to the countys Tourism Development Councilalong with 35 other applicantsin hopes of using $385,685 of the BP money to fund the event. In the end, the proposal for his 2011 Gulf Coast Summer Fest didnt make the cut.

My proposal targets the black communities in five states and 29 cities, Banks wrote in a subsequent letter to the Escambia County Commission. None of the other event proposals submitted to the TDC did anything at all like this.

In the proposal, Banks laid out his intentions to put on a free concert for 29,000 people at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds. Tickets would be made available in various out-of-state markets and require that recipients present a non-refundable hotel confirmation to ensure the heads in beds goal stressed by the tourism council.

He really had no business plan, no marketing plan, argued Commissioner White. He just basically wanted his $385,000. I dont understand how race comes in.

Although it would be the largest event on Banks resume, hes confident in his ability to pull it off. The County Commission also apparently has some amount of faith in BanksCommissioner Grover Robinson describes him as a viable promoteras they granted him $75,000 last year for a concert at the Pensacola Civic Center.

Im qualified, brother, Banks assured. They know I know what Im doing. Why theyre tripping, I have no idea.

While dissatisfied with the TDCs decision not to recommend his event for funding, Banks said he agrees with Commissioner Youngs assessment of perceived racism and is glad that issue is receiving some attention.
The stuff being said, this is stuff people been wanting to say anyway, Banks sighed. They just didnt have a platform.

The Tourist Development Council recommended the lions share of BPs $4.38 million go to the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce; the organizations tourism arm is slated to receive $2,463,694. The Perdido Key Chamber is looking at landing $940,084, while De Luna Fest is set to take the number three slot with $546,342.

The gist of it really is to use it to attract the most tourists to the marketplace, explained TDC Chairman Denis McKinnon.

Commissioner Young argued at the May 19 meeting that the funds would be going to the same people who always get the money.

Banks outlined his position to the Pensacola Voice newspaper.

Its sad when it comes to black people, were non-existent, he told the Voice. We always get crumbs.

The two other applicants for the BP funds that could be viewed as specifically targeting ethnic minorities would be the Good Works Baptist Churchwith a proposal for events featuring rhythm and blues, as well as rap musicand the Downtown Improvement Boards Goombay Gulf Coast, a celebration of Caribbean culture. Neither entity was recommended for funding. They were among two dozen applicants sent away empty handed.

Commissioner Wilson Robertson said he had faith in the TDC, that the Commission-appointed Council had done their homework, done their studies, went in-depth. By the end of the Councils six-hour session, he said, it was determined that Banks proposal did not meet BPs stipulated criteria.

Im not trying to second guess them, not in a 15- or 20-minute meeting, Robertson said. Im assuming they got into this a lot deeper than our board has.

While Robertson said he believed the funds were only available for advertising and promoting the area, McKinnon clarified that the money could also be put to other usessuch as booking talentbut was not allowed to go toward infrastructure such as stages. Banks request sought overall funding for his event.

Commissioner Robinson, who also sits on the TDC board, said Banks had initially made the final cut of applicants. Though his requested amount of nearly $400,000 was never on the tablethat was simply too muchthe promoter was offered $75,000.

We gave him $75,000 [for last years Civic Center event] and he was able to make it work last time, Robinson said.

Banks walked away from that offer, saying it would not have been adequate.

White said he felt the applicants recommended by the TDCsuch as the Chamberrepresented the entire community, as opposed to any one particular faction.
Ive never seen where DeLuna Fest says whites only, the Chairman said.

Ed Schroeder, vice president of tourism development for the Chambers Visit Pensacola, agreed. He said the organization did not concern itself with visitors ethnicity, or targeting a specific race.

We dont know, and we dont care, Schroeder said. If were specifically looking for anybody, its a mom and two kids. Because the dad is going to go where they tell him to.

And while entities such as the Chamber of Commerce might seem a boring choicewith their somewhat predictable campaigns heralding tourism cliches like sugar-white sand, emerald waters and the Blue Angelstheres a reason they are at the front of the line to receive such funds.

It just so happens these same old groups have done a better job [promoting the area] than anyone else on the Gulf Coast, said the TDCs McKinnon. So, why wouldnt we give them the money?

Regardless of Banks eligibility or the eventual recipients of BPs tourism funding, the perception elephant has been released to stomp around the Commissions chambers.

At the end of the day, Banks said, I think its a discussion that needs to be had.

The topic has led Escambia County officialsusually more at home in a world of legalese and acronymsinto a near-philosophical zone.

There may be a perception, said Commissioner Robertson. I cant help perception. Its there. In politics, its always there. But, I dont think its real; I hope its not real.
Robinson echoed that sentiment.

I am cognizant of what the idea of perception creates, he said, later adding, Just because that is their perception, that does not make it reality.

How does one deal with such an intangible concept as perception? According to Banks, there are a couple of ways.

Its not even about the money, in a way, he said. Its about doing the right thing.

The right thing, according to both Banks and Young, would be to either approve the Gulf Coast Summer Fest for funding or throw the matter back to the TDC for reconsideration. Neither is likely to happen. A majority of the CommissionWhite, Robertson, Gene Valentino, and most likely Robinsonplan to go with the Councils recommendations on June 2.

守nless there is some compelling argument not too, Chairman White said. And, so far, I havent seen one.

But Robinson said that the perception issue could lead to a deeper exploration of perceived racism. The Commissioner explained that perhaps the Escambia County community should have a broader conversation about race issues and discuss a long-term strategy to address minority concerns.

Governments not always about dollars and cents, there are other things that are important, Robinson said. I hope we do go there. I hope we try to figure that one out.