Downtown Roundtable with Rob Butlin, Ashton Hayward and Brian Spencer

Downtown continues to evolve, offering a different experience for every demographic that visits its roughly three square-miles. As it shifts, government has had to adjust, sometimes proactively and sometimes reactively. The result is usually pretty, sometimes unseemly, but always uniquely Pensacola. We wanted to look at the process and talk to the highest ranking local officials about how the sausage gets made. Because at the end of the day, we are Pensacola, and those officials answer to us.

Downtown is growing a lot and continuing to grow. With increased residential, tourist and industrial traffic, how does our infrastructure continue to support that?

Hayward: Well I like to think about parking. Used to be, people were worried about parking and where to find a parking spot. But now the cultural vibrancy of downtown has shifted so much that people aren’t so much worried about parking. They want a reservation at the restaurant they’re going to. So infrastructure is incredibly important. We pave roads, we pick up the trash, we cut the grass. That’s something we think about everyday at City Hall. Where are we going to find the funding? That’s obviously via revenue from taxes. But the more people that come downtown, you’re going to have more crowding on the streets. And we’re an old city. But as more people come downtown, they’re also paying more in taxes so we have the revenue to maintain the infrastructure. It’s a good problem to have, to have that many people coming downtown and wanting to visit your retail and restaurants and parks. We are going to have to focus in on that problem. When you look at funding infrastructure, it’s more ad valorem taxes when people live downtown and come downtown. The more people come down here and invest in the community, obviously there’s a return for the government. And that’s what the government’s responsibility is.

What do you feel the government’s role is in fostering economic growth and diversity?

Hayward: When I ran for office in 2010, we preached that downtown is the hub of any community. If you have a dead community, you have a dead city. Cities across America have collapsed. So we want to create that energy and vibrancy with the Downtown Improvement Board (DIB) to get people down here. The private sector has really stepped up in a major way. But from the government’s standpoint, you have to have a government that’s ready and willing to embrace business. I have to be supporting people who want to come downtown. One of the things I did immediately was beg people to move their businesses to downtown Pensacola. I mean, there’s no retail space left right now on Palafox between Garden and Main. We encouraged it from a government’s standpoint. Downtown is the hub. It is the heart. They’re working here, they’re living here more than ever. So our local government needs to make it as easy as possible in the private sector to make investments, pull permits, etc. Our goal is to make it as customer service-oriented as possible.

Butlin: I look at the government as really being responsible for setting the stage and removing barriers. Encouragement is key. We don’t necessarily do anything, but we have a responsibility for the infrastructure, cleanliness and really setting that stage so people want to be here.

Hayward: Diversity is really important, too. If we bring people to this community now, they’re completely wowed. People love to visit downtown, have great meals, go shopping, see a show, and go down to the beach. That diverse element is incredibly important. In the last five years, we’ve really seen different demographics join this town from senior citizens to families to young people. It’s really cool to see the diversity that I often witness. The culture shifted faster than anyone expected, but that’s because you have these cheerleaders for downtown. That’s what we do each and every day.

Spencer: Setting the stage is saying it well. Our role should be to optimize the venue that serves as the backdrop for the private sector to manifest their vision. Their vision can include retail, restaurants, a solution for housing, whatever. What we recognize is we are in the competition of attraction. We’re in the attraction industry. If you don’t embrace that as a reality, you will lose in that competition. We can do everything to make the context more attractive for investors.

Butlin: The city is our product. That’s what we sell.

Spencer: Create a context of confidence. That context can expand to not only mean the physical environment, but also the procedural and process environment. Our reputation that we want to gain is that we are hyper customer-friendly.

Hayward: I think people feel that, too. You’re seeing overwhelming confidence from the private sector and there’s a lot of big things to talk about.

In what ways would you like to see processes and procedures for development and standards consistency improve?

Spencer: Consistency. You have to establish a pattern or a methodology that is clearly delineated. Information needs to be reliable in order for you to make the next step’s decision. And we as officials can serve as tour guides to provide a no-barrier access to the lay of the land. And all of that should be a service we can provide with zero resistance.

You mention the no-barrier access. Do you think the City has achieved that, and if not, what can be done to achieve that?

Spencer: I think the City has made tremendous progress under Mayor Hayward’s direction by creating a weekly roundtable format in which department directors can participate in the process. That’s a predictable, consistent thing. Access to people who are experienced and accountable is valuable.

Let’s talk about affordable housing, education and walkability downtown.

Spencer: I suggest that we expand the definition of affordable housing and describe it as a wide variety of housing options.

Well right now we have the more expensive end of those options. But how can we bring that average down a little bit and make housing more accessible to others downtown?

Spencer: I think it achievable only through higher density projects due to land values.

Butlin: And I think that’s a long-term goal. Downtowns across the country struggle with this concept of family-friendly. Downtowns by their very nature are just not attractive to very young families. They just don’t achieve that. To young people, absolutely. You tend to see the development pattern being young adults with no kids, and then when they get kids they move out of town before coming back when they get a little older. I’d love to change that but in a city our size there’s a lot of other things to tackle first.

Spencer: That may be an actual product of a much more heavily populated downtown.

Hayward: I think people visit a large metropolitan city that’s heavily dense and they would love to have all that they see there. And you get higher standards, which is great. But do we have the numbers to justify it?

What do you all see as the goal of Gallery Night and is it accomplishing that?

Butlin: It’s about what the people want. It’s not something that we said, “It has to be this thing,” and it’s now that thing. In the big picture, the goal has been to expose people to downtown and help create that cool factor that there’s something to do and it’s cool. And try to get people to come spend money downtown, of course. Are there things we can improve? Of course. Gallery Night morphs every single time, then we have to adapt to the changes.

How about the DIB’s role in the facilitation of Gallery Night?

Butlin: Well it would simplify my life if we got two or three really big sponsors to kind of close that deal so that we wouldn’t have to address funding month to month.

Do you see the DIB’s role as beautification or promotion?

Butlin: They’re very similar. It starts with parking, it starts with cleanliness. We want that to be the case so people come down here and visit the shops, so they’re intimately tied together.

Hayward: I think Gallery Night as an event is very attractive. And we need to keep studying it consistently to make sure we’re making the most of it. We’re doing a lot of good things. We need to continue to raise the bar, though. Beautification is one of the most important things we can do as a community. People always say that we need jobs, but if your city is not attractive aesthetically, people are not going to come here. Businesses want to move to a city that’s very attractive. And that’s one of the things that we push. That’s what sells. The flower beds on Palafox are a great example of a public-private partnership that makes the place more attractive and sells. I think we’ve sold the community on the importance of beautification, so more people will get on that. We can borrow ideas from other cities and say, “We want to do that here, too.”

Is beautification something that government should own or that private business should own?

Hayward: I’m a big believer that private business does not create jobs. Government has a role to help facilitate, but it’s important to have the private sector involved. Having a sponsor is important. It’s more of a private sector deal. The role of government is to make sure it’s as easy as possible for businesses to do their thing.

Spencer: I think we have a responsibility to provide a forum for stakeholders and those responsible for Gallery Night to give us feedback. We need to provide that forum. Gallery Night shouldn’t disproportionately affect a particular sector, positively or negatively.

Hayward: You look at the business model and see if we need to adjust it at all or raise the bar.

Spencer: The most recent Gallery Night, I was up at 6 am cleaning up unbelievable amounts of trash for a 5K that day. I collected giant containers of alcohol.

Butlin: Well, we have guys that come and clean that stuff up, just not at 6 am. We didn’t realize we had a race coming through.

Spencer: If we’re going to have this festivity, then the cleanup crew is going to have to be at 2 am, because people are running and walking, touching and feeling our downtown very early. The collateral damage from the alcohol-centric businesses is substantial and putting an unfair burden on others. The amount of trash versus the amount of manpower is not equal. And the alcohol-centric businesses are not paying their fair share of this monthly burden that makes our downtown look terrific until the aftermath.

Hayward: When the demand gets there, the expectation gets higher. We’re going through this growth stage, so it’s very important to get the model down. Other cities have histories of dealing with the revelry that alcohol creates all the time. We’ve got to get everyone around the table and realize it’s not cheap and we need buy-in. Sometimes you got to pay a little more to be a part of the success. Let’s keep the momentum, attractiveness and cleanliness up.

Is this level of revelry consistent with what we want Gallery Night to be?

Spencer: Don’t forget the vision was to create a venue that was a destination to expose and introduce people to the downtown streetscape. We wanted to utilize what was an otherwise under utilized public realm. It’s the perfect example of how a street can have a multiuse function. The goal was and still should be to have those storefronts be very permeable and have people migrate in and out. Some of those growing pains include how we enhance the permeability for all establishments so that pedestrians and users don’t use too much of their dollars staying outside of the establishment.

So your issue is not with what Gallery Night has become but with how we deal with the aftermath?

Spencer: The transition into the later hours.

Butlin: The management has to keep pace with what it’s become.

Spencer: And we want to create a setting that is consistent with the vision for the future of downtown, which is much more mixed use and residential. I like to fast forward and think about the Gallery Night of the future and make it compatible with that future vision.

Butlin: And it’s not just Gallery Night. It’s all events.

Hayward: We’ve had this growth of population and events. We want to set up the blueprint for the next administration so it’s all easier to manage. The demand to have events downtown is a good problem to have, because that was one of our goals. But we have to have the right blueprint that’s manageable.

Spencer: Right, so that we don’t leave future elected officials with the task of deconstructing things.

How do you feel about walkabiltiy and bikeability downtown?

Spencer: The level of incompatibility of biking in our downtown is not Pensacola-unique. Most every city in America is challenged with the trend for fitness, which includes biking, and the reality of vehicular-dependent culture. It’s only in cities that are large enough to fund and support infrastructure for mass transportation and remove single vehicles off the road that have an edge on us. Those roadways can then become more cycle-centric. We’re capable of doing it if the public is willing to relax the culture of vehicular dominance. And they would have to be willing to sacrifice some of the road real estate so we could have dedicated facilities for bikes. And I also want to point out that this is one hot and humid climate. It’s a joke to say people want to bike to work. I get frustrated when I’m in these meetings and people shout for more money to help people bike to work. I don’t want my employees showing up in the middle of July for a meeting after they’ve biked to work. You can’t do it. When I talk about cycling, I like to put it in the recreational fitness category. You’re dressed for it and setting aside time to do it.

Hayward: It’s a socioeconomics thing. It’s population. It’s the culture that we want to be bike-friendly. The steps that the Council and I have made, like bringing those bike racks downtown, have allowed the public to buy in. People are saying, “Oh, it’s cool to bike now.” The culture is shifting on a lot of fronts and the community in general is slowly getting in. Smart people want to live in a bikeable and walkable community. We believe it, for sure, but we need to educate the public and people that live here to look out for bikers and slow down. You can’t just flip the switch overnight.

Spencer: But to get it more walkable, it’s crucial to think about shade with sidewalks. Many cities have that problem. You don’t pave 10 feet of sidewalk if you haven’t figured out how to shade those 10 feet for the hot summer months.

What are you most proud of in downtown?

Hayward: It’s really a “we” deal. We ran on a platform of creating a great downtown with lots of growth for Pensacola. Councilman Spencer and I have worked hard towards that. People want to feel alive and to see how fast the growth has happened in the last five years, people feel that. You have neighborhoods, healthcare, workspaces and more. We’ve changed that canvas so quickly, where values have gone through the roof in a short amount of time. It’s been a community effort from the beginning. We allowed it to happen freely and we embraced it. We’re becoming this great city in Florida.

Spencer: I’d like to remind the Mayor of one of his biggest accomplishments. I personally watched the Mayor inherit the bold vision of his predecessors in the form of transporting one of our largest toxic sites into a public space. He inherited that and he saw an opportunity to take that dream and make it even better. Thanks to the partnership of Quint Studer who realized that the stadium could be even better, he took that park and made it what it is today. That’s his biggest legacy for downtown. Main Street was going to be a high-speed unadorned thoroughfare and he advocated enlarging that water feature and changed it into a beautiful thing. The Mayor recognized how important these things are.

Hayward: It was a team effort. It was a $60 million project.

Spencer: You pressed pause and said, “Let’s do it right.”

Hayward: That retention was going to look like a retention pond, and look what it is today. Main Street was not going to look like that.

Butlin: And that will be catalytic for 50 years. That’s what leadership is.

Hayward: As long as we’re serving the public, it’s our fiduciary right to give the public the greatness it deserves.

Spencer: I’m proud we were able to participate in the fulfillment of a bold vision authored by others.