WHY NOT PENSACOLA? Pensacola is once again on the cusp of being this country’s next great city. Mayor Ashton Hayward has brought vitality to the city. The maritime park is rushing to completion of its first phase. Businesses are relocating to downtown Pensacola, and we’ve yet to see the impact of the millions of dollars of BP fine money once Congress approves its distribution formula.
The City of Five Flags has been on this precipice many times over its past 452 years, but this time can be different. If we are willing to deal with all the challenges—such as poverty, education, health, sustainability and racial disparity—facing our community, then we might become the place where people from around the world come to solve similar issues.
Our public education system is broken. Only three out of five of our students in the Escambia County system are reading and performing math at or above their grade level, and that number has been relatively flat for the past three years despite the federal government pumping in almost $60 million of Title 1 funds into the school district over that period. Thirty percent of our children don’t graduate from high school.
Our median household income is below the state average, our health outcomes are worse, and our rate of domestic violence is higher. All of these issues are intertwined. If we can make headway on them, people will be knocking on our door wanting to move here, or, at least, come to learn how we are doing it.
While we’ve made strides in dealing with the environmental problems of the past, which have placed our community on most lists for bad water and air, we can further change our image into being one of the “greenest” areas in the country. Mayor Hayward’s initiative to convert government vehicles to natural gas and build natural gas fueling stations is a giant step in that direction.
When the city receives its disparity report, it will see what may be the biggest challenge in creating a reputation for innovation, sustainability and accountability and beginning a world-class city. The gap between west Pensacola and east Pensacola is huge. Black households make 46 percent less than their white counterparts—$26,492 to $49,279 median household income. The poverty rate is three times higher in the African-American community. The unemployment is more than double for blacks versus whites.
Until we narrow that gap, Pensacola can’t progress and become the next great city, but if we do, then the future will be bright for all of us.