Is Escambia County’s government tinged with racism? The short answer, it seems, is no. But the longer version—still spilling out of a can of worms opened by Escambia County Commissioner Marie Young during a May 19 meeting—defies 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 can’t help but wonder about the perception that is there.”
The issue at hand—which was ultimately tabled until the Commission’s June 2 meeting—was the allocation of $4.38 million provided by BP to boost tourism following the company’s 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.
CADILLAC AND THE BIGGER QUESTION
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 he’s helping produce.
“If I had enough money I’d really put this city on the map,” Banks had proclaimed earlier on the phone.
When he’s 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 county’s Tourism Development Council—along with 35 other applicants—in 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 didn’t 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 don’t understand how race comes in.”
Although it would be the largest event on Banks’ resume, he’s confident in his ability to pull it off. The County Commission also apparently has some amount of faith in Banks—Commissioner Grover Robinson describes him as a “viable promoter”—as they granted him $75,000 last year for a concert at the Pensacola Civic Center.
“I’m qualified, brother,” Banks assured. “They know I know what I’m doing. Why they’re tripping, I have no idea.”
While dissatisfied with the TDC’s decision not to recommend his event for funding, Banks said he agrees with Commissioner Young’s 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 didn’t have a platform.”
COLOR BLIND VISION
The Tourist Development Council recommended the lion’s share of BP’s $4.38 million go to the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce; the organization’s 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.
“It’s sad when it comes to black people, we’re 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 Church—with a proposal for events featuring rhythm and blues, as well as rap music—and the Downtown Improvement Board’s 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 Council’s six-hour session, he said, it was determined that Banks’ proposal did not meet BP’s stipulated criteria.
“I’m not trying to second guess them, not in a 15- or 20-minute meeting,” Robertson said. “I’m 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 uses—such as booking talent—but 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 table—“that was simply too much”—the promoter was offered $75,000.
“We gave him $75,000 [for last year’s 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 TDC—such as the Chamber—represented the entire community, as opposed to any one particular faction.
“I’ve never seen where DeLuna Fest says ‘whites only,’” the Chairman said.
Ed Schroeder, vice president of tourism development for the Chamber’s Visit Pensacola, agreed. He said the organization did not concern itself with visitors’ ethnicity, or targeting a specific race.
“We don’t know, and we don’t care,” Schroeder said. “If we’re specifically looking for anybody, it’s 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 choice—with their somewhat predictable campaigns heralding tourism cliches like sugar-white sand, emerald waters and the Blue Angels—there’s 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 TDC’s McKinnon. “So, why wouldn’t we give them the money?”
PERCEPTION, REALITY AND THE ‘RIGHT THING’
Regardless of Banks’ eligibility or the eventual recipients of BP’s tourism funding, the “perception” elephant has been released to stomp around the Commission’s chambers.
“At the end of the day,” Banks said, “I think it’s a discussion that needs to be had.”
The topic has led Escambia County officials—usually more at home in a world of legalese and acronyms—into a near-philosophical zone.
“There may be a perception,” said Commissioner Robertson. “I can’t help perception. It’s there. In politics, it’s always there. But, I don’t think it’s real; I hope it’s 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.
“It’s not even about the money, in a way,” he said. “It’s 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 Commission—White, Robertson, Gene Valentino, and most likely Robinson—plan to go with the Council’s recommendations on June 2.
“…unless there is some compelling argument not too,” Chairman White said. “And, so far, I haven’t 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.
“Government’s 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.”