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Friday October 31st 2014

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MURAC’s Final Plan

The Mayor’s Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee has been at work since February. Today it approved its final report, a document chock-full of recommendations concerning downtown Pensacola.

“People are going to criticize this report and that’s ok,” said committee Chairman Brian Hooper. “If we do nothing more than spur debate about this whole thing that’s a step forward.”

Mayor Ashton Hayward created the advisory committee in an effort to assist him in growing downtown. The group’s final report serves as a collection of recommendations for the mayor. It addresses the areas of new development, tourism, housing and neighborhoods, the central Palafox commercial core, mobility, creating new jobs, organization and funding.

The report breaks downtown into neighborhoods, analyzing the needs and potentials, the strengths and weaknesses, of each. The committee makes neighborhood-specific recommendations, as well as recommendations that pertain to the whole of downtown.

Key elements of the report deal with economic development and maximizing existing potential, such as vacant parcels of public land. The committee advises that an influx of private capital is integral to downtown’s future, and that public funds —“aggressive incentives and tax breaks”—will be needed in order to create a more inviting environment for businesses.

The report also focuses on creating a connected—pedestrian friendly—downtown. It stresses the coexistence of work, play and residential, of fostering a mixed-use environment. MURAC members also suggest hiring a full-time grant writer, soliciting the county for RESTORE funds, selling public lands and encouraging philanthropic funding.

Another recommendation from the advisory committee deals with the Downtown Improvement Board. The committee recommends that the entity “voluntarily downsize the DIB staff to one coordinating clerical position, a primary liaison organizationally housed within the mayor’s office.” It summarizes that “the DIB board can be an excellent conduit for communicating the needs of the DIB district to the mayor without wasting scant resources on an attendant bureaucracy that has caused such controversy.”

“The DIB board’s primary responsibility would then be to make recommendations to the mayor for the disbursement of DIB revenues,” the report states. “Since the mayor appoints the board, he can work with the DIB board to strategically achieve the very best results for those residents and business owners within the DIB district—and he will do so within the context of greater city development goals.”

Members of the committee appeared pleased with the final report and passed it without too much discussion. John Myslak, who chaired the mayor’s port advisory committee, said he would have liked to see the recommendations prioritized to some degree (he suggested going for the grant writer first) and Teresa Dos Santos compared the report to a work of art.

“When you look at it, you are struck by emotions, you either love it or hate it,” she said. “I feel the same way about our report.”

Chairman Hooper said that he doubted anyone could disagree wholesale with the report, even if they took issue with certain aspects. He also addressed murmurs in the community that MURAC advisor Chuck Tessier was forwarding a specific agenda— “Who’s Chuck? Who’s this Chuck guy? He’s just a puppet for Studer,” he joked—and said that the development consultant was instrumental in Asheville, N.C.’s revitalization.

Tiffany Washington, a candidate for the Escambia County Commission, District 3 seat, spoke during the public input period. She questioned the committee’s vision for the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood.

“Some people are concerned that gentrification would mean the residents that are there would be further disenfranchised or displaced,” Washington said, later adding that she had spoked with residents who were scared the city would “basically jackhammer them out of their homes. Some people have even mentioned eminent domain. It’s not something people are taking lightly, people have a real fear in that area.”

Hooper, as well as MURAC member Christian Wagley, assured Washington that the committee has considered and addressed such concerns in the report. Wagley noted that while eminent domain had been used in other areas of the country for economic development purposes, he didn’t think such a move would garner support at the local level.

“What you just described would be absolutely opposed to the spirit of our report,” Hooper told her.

Following its approval of the final report, the Mayor’s Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee ended its run. Hooper, who described the group’s duration in terms of committee members’ personal lives—“nine months and two babies”—appeared ready to wrap up the advisory board, which was already a few months beyond its original end date.

“As of now we are officially disbanded,” he said at the end of the meeting. “Done, finished.”