10 Most Important Business Changes in Downtown’s Past 50 Years
In 1959, Pensacola celebrated its Quadricentennial, generating interest in what Pensacola had been like in times past. Among initial champions of this cause were Clark Thompson and Warren Briggs. Together they transformed an early 20th century warehouse into tasteful offices, meeting areas and a street-front park. Then, a step at a time, often working with other property owners, the pair brought a new look to buildings across Palafox from historic Plaza Ferdinand. What originally had been shops and banking houses became models in restoration. A late 19th century Franco-Spanish Gulf Coast look now appeared. What Thompson and Briggs began, others followed.
RESTORATION OF THE 1980s
Restoration of the 1980s began a second chapter. In 1980, the Rainwater family acquired much of the Brent Block, classic buildings reconstructed following a 1905 fire. Rainwater’s vision was to bring back the elegance of days gone by, hoping to provide a catalyst for restoration of the Hotel San Carlos. The hotel vision did not materialize as hoped, but the Brent Block’s success provided an example. Other older structures were transformed. Into the 1990s, the hotel was razed, replaced by a handsome federal courthouse. Meanwhile, several historical societies accepted Rainwater and Thompson’s challenge. The 23-unit Historic Village became a functioning reality. Then came museums which would become attractions for visitors. Among them was the Naval Aviation Museum.
In 1964, most of Escambia County’s governmental housing had grown old. Into the 1970s, a Governmental Center Complex Commission shaped
plans for the central location of government functions. The plan proceeded slowly, but one-by-one most entities were placed: The Blanchard Judicial Center, the Askew State Office Building, the new City Hall – plus replacement fire and police stations – and conversion of the 1912 Court of Record Building to the Pensacola Cultural Center. Finally came the square-block county center, incorporating an 1887 structure, a parking garage and quarters for constitutional officers, the county commission and staff. Shortly thereafter, the 1940 federal courthouse underwent extensive renovations to become the Winston Arnow Courthouse. Only the school board declined to locate in the Governmental Center. Into the 1970s, merchants and property owners recognized a need for a vehicle to financially support community improvements. Established then was the Downtown Improvement Board, an organization able to generate funds through a property-owner tax. The DIB, working with interested parties, gained grants and city assistance to improve streets, sidewalks, plantings and building exteriors. The work was a step-by-step process, but by 2014 results were easy to see. Among the achievements were new means of parking and revision of Palafox Street traffic to two-way. The community looked better, and it was easier to access. Gallery Nights and the Palafox Market are now among the DIB’s hallmarks of success.
Pensacola became the headquarters for the Institute For Human and Machine Cognition, an assembly of highly skilled men and women employed creating tools for a future economy, military equipment, space travel and robotics. IHMC brought a new generation downtown. Their wishes, in housing, markets, shopping needs, and entertainment, plus access to the waterfront, charted thinking for others. Many agreed that this new generation, with excellent incomes and a progressive attitude, was what Pensacola’s future required. What leaders of IHMC saw and communicated was adopted by men and women seeking a new, better Pensacola.
Into the 1970s, merchants and property owners recognized a need for a vehicle to financially support community improvements. Established then was the Downtown Improvement Board, an organization able to generate funds through a property-owner tax. The DIB, working with interested parties, gained grants and city assistance to improve streets, sidewalks, plantings and building exteriors. The work was a step-by-step
process, but by 2014 results were easy to see. Among the achievements were new means of parking and revision of Palafox Street traffic to two-way. The community looked better, and it was easier to access.
THE RESTORATION OF THE SAENGER THEATRE
The Palafox Street motion picture palace was constructed in 1924-25 and enjoyed excellent use until the advent of television (in 1954). Thereafter the theatre’s use diminished. In the mid-1970s, the Saenger’s owner, ABC Theatres, deeded the property to the City of Pensacola. Five years later, a $1 million restoration campaign provided funding for a reworking of the interior and street-front. The theatre then became the site for many musical and artistic presentations, including the Symphony Orchestra and Children’s Chorus. Twenty years later, a second successful campaign permitted enlargement of the theatre’s footprint, enabling it to offer greater opportunities from Broadway to barnstorming. Together with the Cultural Center, the Saenger paved the way for quality entertainment far beyond what might be expected in a city Pensacola’s size. Allied with cultural enrichment came a growth of outdoor festivals, Gallery Nights and the opening of places of entertainment where retail shops once operated.
The storm of September 2004 was beyond the character of the many hurricanes the city had experienced. The unparalleled damage brought to focus many forms of repair and rebuilding, accomplished by insurance payments and funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A new organization, Rebuild Northwest Florida, assisted property owners, then and into the future. Repairs came naturally in making existing structures more attractive. Public buildings, marinas, and utilities all gained stature. The rebuilding took many months; however, the entire community was better for the changes. Related to Ivan rebuilding came the visibility of entrepreneurs whose capital and vision brought the beginning of improvements which had been only dreams earlier. Many became involved. This partial listing covers only those whose investments were in historic restoration, construction of housing and professional sites, and planning for such changes as relocation of the YMCA and headquarters of the newspapers. This modest list included Ray Russenburger, Collier Merrill, Quint and Rishy Studer, and Deborah Dunlap. Others became involved, and appeared to be encouraged by what they saw. Ivan is the sixth most expensive hurricane since records have been kept, with $18.8 billion in damages.
BAYFRONT PARKWAY AND WATER ACCESS
Professional studies had suggested that Pensacola should remake its waterfront, departing from the industrial use that had been part of the long-time economy. First step, in the 1980s, was a placement of a waterfront parkway and walkers’ view which, year by year, improved. Then came placement of the handsome Veterans Park, which recognized the community’s lasting links to military services. A decade later, adjoining property was converted to a naturalist park. With Pensacola’s rising numbers of military reunions, some linked to the National Museum of Naval Aviation, the waterfront parks became a site with many purposes.
COMMUNITY MARITIME PARK
The early studies had suggested a need for a waterfront entertainment center. In 2000, the city acquired acreage at the foot of Spring Street that
once had housed railroad trackage and warehousing. Plans were drafted for an ambitious theatrical center; however, voters rejected the proposal.
Then followed planning by an appointed commission whose result included a high quality multi-use stadium appropriate for minor league professional baseball, other sports, and a variety of entertainment forms. The park opened for use in 2012 and immediately proved its worth. The
full park also would accommodate a tax-paying office structure, and soon would have a children’s playground. Baseball drew capacity audiences to the park, and these became patrons of the expanding number of mid-town restaurants, bars and musical halls.
THE MAIN STREET SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANT
This facility, built in 1964 and enlarged a decade later, had long been a point of criticism. Its appearance (as part of downtown) and the odors present were objectionable. However, until Hurricane Ivan, finding funding for STP relocation had seemed unlikely. The storm changed that. Owner of the facility, Emerald Coast Utility Authority, worked with agencies of government, local, state and national, and with FEMA, creating a working package. Engineering proceeded with remarkable speed, and by 2009 the replacement facility, 15 miles north of the city, had become operational. This change improved downtown. It also introduced development potential for the county’s center. At this writing, the property once occupied by the treatment plant still stood vacant, a site with potential for further development.