Written by Joseph Baucum for the Pensacola News Journal, (email@example.com) | Published Feb. 28, 2017
Florida’s Great Northwest unveiled a regional economic transformation strategy on Monday to create more opportunities without overlapping efforts.
The economic development organization, which represents 12 counties in the Panhandle, conducted roundtable discussions and interviews with more than 860 Floridians from a cross-section of industries to determine its findings. Its report serves to offer a blueprint for how counties can jointly accumulate economic victories in the short, mid and long term.
For Escambia County, a large portion of the challenge hinges on efforts to sustain the revitalization of downtown Pensacola while simultaneously refusing to neglect the less affluent areas of the county.
“How do you do economic development that provides opportunities for all of these groups, and not just the groups who are going to college and getting four-year degrees?” asked Zach Jenkins, director of the University of West Florida Haas Center for Business Research & Economic Development. The center assisted with the report’s data analysis, and Jenkins serves on the steering committee for the strategy.
“You have to have a plan that will create the jobs that keep all individuals here for the long term,” he asserted.
In the continuing of the downtown’s revival, Jenkins said a vibrant urban core plays an essential role in attracting a young, talented workforce to the area, because an abundance of young professionals desire a walkable metropolitan center where they can live, work and enjoy social activities. That in turn compels businesses to also locate downtown, because the new workforce prefers not needing a vehicle for their daily lives.
Several properties are set to start operating soon in downtown, including Studer Properties $52 million, mixed-use Southtowne apartment project at 101 E. Romana St. But as housing in the area continues to grow, Jenkins said affordability will also factor heavily in economic development.
“There’s been efforts and some things are going to be coming online in the next several years, but will it be affordable at the level where young professionals can live, work and play in downtown?” he asked.
Michael Carro, principal at SVN SouthLand Commercial Real Estate, anticipates downtown development to trend west of Palafox Street, mostly because east of the street has started to approach buildout. His agency’s properties on the west side include the Spearman Center, a 22,000-square-foot development on the corner of Barrancas Avenue and Main Street.
“Now we’re starting to push the western boundary where we have a lot of old structures that are ripe for redevelopment, whether that’s dilapidated facilities or raw land available for redevelopment,” he said.
But as the urban core continues its evolution, the rural areas of the county also need their share of advancement efforts. Jenkins said in areas like the county’s northern section and neighborhoods on Pensacola’s west side, the right tools and opportunities must be implemented to promote employment — whether that be actual companies or essentials for economic prosperity such as high-speed internet access.
Installing those aspects can be complicated, Jenkins admitted.
“Is someone going to invest in fiber optics in a rural community where they see a decline in subscriber population?” he asked. “But then that’s the cycle of why people can’t stay there. They don’t have the services that people need to be competitive in a growing marketplace.”
Rodney Jones, president of the NAACP’s Pensacola branch, emphasized that an influx in labor-intensive businesses, such as in carpentry or masonry, in the city’s west neighborhoods would help propel households more so than jobs reliant on technical skills. He said many “jobs that are coming (to the area) are skill-related and for people without felony records,” which does little to assist those in the city’s historically disadvantaged communities.
“If you start with the downtown area, you’re only going to expand so far,” Jones said. “You’re going to run to a point where you’re only going to develop one part of Pensacola and leave the other parts, for lack of a better term, to the dogs.”
A few efforts to address the area’s economic divide have already taken root to various extents, including a pilot study on early learning at the county’s hospitals. The study is a collaboration between Studer Community Institute and The University of Chicago.
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