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In a public letter Friday, when Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward announced his opposition to a moratorium on demolitions of historic buildings, what he really announced was that historic preservation just isn’t at the top of his priorities list.

He essentially argued for the status quo — just one month after the historic 1901 John Sunday House was demolished without going through the city’s established historic preservation review process. City councilman Brian Spencer has proposed a six-month moratorium on the demolition of buildings more than 100 years old. Spencer wants everyone to take a “time-out” to give city officials and the community the chance to reevaluate our processes and improve them if necessary.

It’s a move that makes a lot of sense for a city that just celebrated its 457th birthday.

Instead, Hayward lambasted citizens concerned about the recent trend of demolitions and the precedent set by the Sunday House saga. Pensacola “does not lack protections for structures that may possess historical or cultural significance,” he wrote, overlooking the fact that those protections don’t count for much when a developer simply uses the court system to sidestep them, as happened with the Sunday House.

San Carlos Hotel, Pensacola, Florida, 1940s. (UWF Historic Trust/Special to The Pulse)

The San Carlos Hotel was built in downtown Pensacola in 1910. Due to neglect and a lack of historic preservation efforts, the landmark was demolished in the 1990s. (UWF Historic Trust/Special to The Pulse)

We’re not surprised by Hayward’s position. As mayor of America’s first settlement, he has repeatedly demonstrated his preference for redevelopment over preservation. Hayward, it seems, is fundamentally unable to understand and comprehend the true value of historic preservation and the cultural and economic benefits it can bring to a community like Pensacola.

Hayward’s arguments — that historic preservation protections will stymie and stifle development — are irrational, ignorant, and unsupported by the facts. A 2010 study coauthored by University of Florida and Rutgers University scholars found that historic preservation activities in Florida generate an estimated annual economic impact of $6.6 billion, including more than $4 billion a year in heritage tourism spending.

So we’re left wondering whether Hayward doesn’t understand the value of Pensacola’s history, or simply doesn’t care. We’re really not sure what’s worse.

Even if you ignore the holes in Pensacola’s existing processes, Hayward’s argument that the status quo is good enough is ridiculous. As Hayward pointed out, the city has five ostensibly protected historic districts; but they’re centered in historically white neighborhoods. Their boundaries largely ignore Pensacola’s historically African-American neighborhoods such as the Tanyard and Belmont-Devilliers, which are home to some of the oldest structures in Northwest Florida.

For two centuries before Jim Crow, Pensacola was known as a place where men and women of color built successful businesses, developed neighborhoods, and helped shape the city itself. Their contributions form a compelling and invaluable part of Pensacola’s historic fabric. Unfortunately, time and time again, those stories and those residents have been ignored and pushed out in the name of “progress.”

The John Sunday House, built in 1901 in Pensacola's Tanyard neighborhood, was demolished in July. (UWF Historic Trust/Special to The Pulse)

The John Sunday House, built in 1901 in Pensacola’s Tanyard neighborhood, was demolished in July. (UWF Historic Trust/Special to The Pulse)

These neighborhoods and their history don’t seem to matter to Hayward, who seems content to offer criticism and ghostwritten letters instead of solutions.

Maybe it’s because he’s spent too long in the bubble of City Hall, detached from the conversations being had in neighborhoods across Pensacola. Maybe he honestly believes Pensacola’s history will somehow survive even if dozens of unique historic structures are replaced with generic modern developments. Maybe he’s really just ignorant of the facts.

Either way, it’s clear that he just doesn’t get it. Pensacola’s mayor should be a champion for our city’s history, not an apologist for short-sighted developers.

Our view on this issue is clear: there is nothing more valuable to Pensacola than our history. Plenty of cities have vibrant downtowns and beautiful beaches. There’s only one that has those things and can call itself America’s first city. Pensacola has more heritage than any city in America, yet we continue to be outpaced by cities like Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans when it comes to heritage tourism.

It’s time for our leaders to recognize the potential — economic, cultural, and otherwise — of embracing and protecting Pensacola’s rich history. Preserve it, and they will come.

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