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Sunday October 26th 2014

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Pitching the Plan

When Brian Hooper dove in to the downtown-redevelopment think tank last year, he was awaiting the arrival of his first child. On Thursday, that baby sat and listened in the public gallery as his father presented the Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee’s final report to the Pensacola Community Redevelopment Agency board.

Hooper outlined the mayoral committee’s work, which focused on how best to stimulate growth in the city’s urban core. The committee head said downtown growth would benefit the city as a whole.

“If downtown Pensacola succeeds and thrives,” Hooper said, “there will be a spillover effect.”

CRA Chairman Brian Spencer said he thought many of the recommendations in the advisory committee’s report could be “embraced and initiated.”

“Many of them can be—in my opinion more than 90 of them—can be completed,” Spencer said.

Mayor Ashton Hayward’s URAC began work in February and approved a final report in late October. The final report is a collection of recommendations addressing such issues as economic development and job-creation, housing, neighborhoods, mobility and tourism.

The report contains 150 recommendations, ranging from long-range vision items to less-involved “action items.” It’s a lot to wade through—Hooper joked that someone had told him it took “two nights and three bottles of wine” to read it—and is meant to offer officials, as well as community and business leaders choices.

“We wanted to provide you with an array of options,” Hooper told the CRA board. “If we would have said ‘these are our Top Three,’ that would have locked you in, and that wasn’t our interest.”

The URAC chairman said the growth of downtown would be driven primarily by the private sector. He stressed the need for minimal government red-tape and said the growth will take time.

“It’s going to be slow, it’s going to be gradual, it’s going to be glacial, it’s not going to happen over night,” Hooper said.

During his presentation, Hooper said not to expect a “silver bullet.” He encouraged varied approaches, including capitalizing on currently-vacant, publicly-owned land, fostering a diverse stock of downtown businesses—“you don’t just want the hipsters going downtown to Hopjacks, or the yuppies going to the World of Beer”—and accommodating affordable housing.

The committee chairman painted a picture of a vibrant urban hub. One that both accommodated and attracted. A place people wanted to be.

“Young people do not want to live somewhere unless there is some sort of urban feel,” Hooper said. “—a place where there is a lot of activity.”

One current proposal, which the Pensacola City Council will discuss Monday, is building a new YMCA on a parcel at the Community Maritime Park. Hooper and CRA board members—who also sit as city council members—discussed the Y-proposal and how it might serve to generate more activity downtown.

“We need more reasons for people to come downtown,” Hooper said, adding that the Y-proposal could make sense due to the financial momentum behind it. “Right now, the Y is the only game in town, it’s the only offer on the table.”

Chuck Tessier, a consultant involved with the committee’s process, told the CRA board that RESTORE money—fines stemming from Clean Water Act penalties levied against BP for the 2010 oil spill—should be kept in mind when considering downtown redevelopment efforts.

“It is one of the largest blocks of money that this community has seen in a very long time,” Tessier said. “It needs to be used in a way that adds up to something.”

Hooper also told CRA board members that he had discussed the report with various groups—such as the Pensacola Young Professionals, members of which were in attendance—and found the organizations to be “receptive” and “pleased.”