Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 30th 2014

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Dreaming Up a Downtown

by Jeremy Morrison

With the late 20th century migration to the suburbs and shopping malls, many of this country’s downtowns began their eerie decline into desperate landscapes of forgotten splendor. Pensacola’s own downtown was a near ghost town, where tumbleweeds could blow the entire stretch of South Palafox unbothered.

In more recent years, the city of Pensacola has joined in the national trend of revitalizing its downtown area. Increasingly more eateries and boutiques dot downtown, as businesses and residents return from the wilderness of suburbia to participate in a growing urban center.

To support such revitalization efforts, municipalities put a lot of effort into fostering growth. Special taxing districts, like Community Redevelopment Agencies (CRAs), are created and grand events, such as Gallery Nights, are planned. Locally, Pensacola has placed a lot of energy into building the Maritime Park, a Double AA baseball stadium.

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward has also created a committee to take a look at downtown’s future—sort of a Revitalization 2.0. The Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee has been tasked with assessing the next step.

“First off,” said John Myslak, opening up an early April meeting of the committee, “who was at the game last night?”

Two months in, Hayward’s advisory committee hunkered down to another Friday morning meeting at Pensacola City Hall. But it wasn’t just any Friday morning. It was the Friday, April 4—the morning after the Blue Wahoos’ first game at the city’s new ballpark across the street and much of downtown still seemed awash in euphoria.

Myslak told his fellow committee members that they should view Maritime Park as a “springboard.” The group appeared to agree that the park’s momentum—opening weekend was a sellout, as were season tickets—could serve as key coattails to ride into the horizon.

Mayor Hayward announced his advisory committee in early February. The group is charged with producing a report outlining downtown’s path toward continued revitalization.

“We want to produce a report that the mayor can act on immediately,” said committee chairman Brian Hooper.

Among other things, the think tank is supposed to be figuring out how to bring more businesses and residents into the area, thus increasing the tax base of the city, and more specifically, the CRA. In part, the group is looking at how to best implement plans already on the shelf. Hooper said he was looking to set the wheels in motion for “a vibrant, successful city where people want to move.”

Halfway through their four-month run, committee members took an opportunity last week to step back and attempt to, as Myslak put it: get their “arms around the magnitude of this thing.” The group attempted to prioritize its mission.

Members addressed their individual concerns, each assigned to a specific area or aspect of downtown. Myslak focused on Pensacola’s port, advising that the group should look at the ramifications of bringing tenants to the port that would produce a higher tax and lease revenue.

“Can we do that? Can the markets bear it?” Myslak said. “It’s a broader, deeper question than just saying ‘do it.’”

Other committee members talked about the need to remove zoning burdens to make it easier for various developments, or drawing up cohesive marketing plans to attract larger commercial tenants to the city’s vacant parcels of land. There was also discussion about tying in the area’s historic tourism element to a working waterfront.

Committee member Christian Wagley breached the issue with overriding undercurrents: finances.

“Where’s the money coming from?” he asked. “How are we going to do this?”

In addition to drawing up a vision for downtown, one of the committee’s primary purposes is to attract more activity to the area so that the city might realize increased tax revenue. Considering the difficult economic climate the city of Pensacola faces, committee members discussed looking outside of government for the funds needed for any future endeavors.

“Private development seems like the way to go because we’re out of money,” said board member Shana Neuhaus.

Dr. Ken Ford told his fellow board members that he felt it was important to ensure that there was an adequate stock of affordable housing downtown in order to accommodate young professionals and middle class residents. He said the lack of such housing currently prevents a lot of people from living in the downtown area.

“You can live a lot more cheaply in Boston than Pensacola, that should not be the case,” Ford said.

Ford also advised the group to take an active role in shaping the character of downtown. He said that Gallery Night should have “some connection to art” and complained about the “mobs of hoodlums” roaming downtown late in the evening.

“I really don’t want to see Palafox Street become Bourbon Street,” Ford said. “And it’s kind of close to that some nights.”

After another couple of months, the mayor’s urban advisory committee will issue its roadmap. Though it can use the many reports, studies and plans developed by other groups over the past two decades to guide its deliberations, the committee still has a formidable task: how does the city of Pensacola build on its existing momentum to create a viable urban center that adheres to a cohesive vision and also provides a thriving new tax base?

“If you start to peel the skin off the onion,” Teresa Dos Santos told her fellow committee members at the end of the meeting, “you say, ‘oh my God, it’s going to take me 25 years to figure this out.”