The economic future of our entire area largely depends on Pensacola’s renaissance. Surrounding communities will not reach their full potential unless the City thrives. Downtown Pensacola is the area’s legal, financial and cultural center, and the Seville Historic District is the “crown jewel” of Pensacola. Only 52,000 people live in the City. However, thousands more go to town for work, business, dining, cultural events and medical care.
The Pensacola area has a plethora of desirable attributes. In the past, other Northwest Florida and Alabama communities envied us, but we fell behind. Escambia County’s population is stable, and the City actually lost residents.
Our city and county are undeniably poor. The local economy compares unfavorably with other large Florida counties. Recent newspaper articles reported: 1) over 60 percent of our school children qualify for subsidized lunches; 2) we have high crime rates; and 3) health statistics are discouraging.
A sustained revitalization of Downtown will give an economic boost to Pensacola and the surrounding area. Most urban planners who visit here share common themes for Downtown revival: convenient approaches, walkability and public access to the waterfront. The current situation is:
• Access to the Historic District is awkward: 1) The I-110 Downtown exit sends traffic west on Garden Street going away from Seville; 2) the east end of Government Street is closed; and 3) there are no safe and easy pedestrian crossings of Bayfront Parkway to the walkway that runs between the Three-mile Bridge and Seville.
• The City was slow to redevelop its outmoded industrial waterfront. The port is the prime example. Something good is always about to happen at the port but seldom does. It has a low level of activity and no public access. The port is a barrier between Seville and the waterfront.
• Attractive pedestrian walks are lacking. Pleasant sidewalks and footpaths are not the norm.
The City owns 100 acres of Downtown waterfront, but there was no public access until a few years ago. Plaza de Luna provided the first real bayfront access. It was an instant success. The Maritime Park opened in 2012. It has a baseball stadium, an amphitheater and public park. Baseball games are very popular. The amphitheater and public area may become popular, but they are not well connected to the commercial core and Historic District.
Further downtown revival requires infrastructure investment. The City should address vehicle and pedestrian approaches, walkability and waterfront access. Among needed projects are a “roundabout” at 9th Avenue and Bayfront Parkway, the opening of east Government Street, improved sidewalks, safe pedestrian crossings on Bayfront Parkway, and an attractive and exciting walking path all along the waterfront between Bruce Beach and the Three-mile Bridge. These improvements will make a more attractive community that will draw people, businesses and private capital to Pensacola.
A critical problem is lack of capital funds to pay for the needed infrastructure. City Hall is burdened with $46 million in Maritime Park debt and $150 million in promised retiree benefits. These obligations limit future borrowing for new capital projects.
Possible sources of funds are a renewal of the Local Option Sales Tax and the much anticipated BP Restore Funds. When funds become available, Mayor and Council should place a high priority on Downtown infrastructure. This is the key to enhancement of Pensacola’s renaissance.
~ Clarence C. Elebash
(Clarence C. Elebash is a retired UWF professor of finance and a resident of Pensacola.)