As my friend Quint Studer has said, “Empty grass doesn’t create jobs.” Well, empty grass doesn’t attract new residents or new investment either.
But for nearly 20 years, empty grass is exactly what we’ve had at the 2.2-acre Hawkshaw property, and it looks like it will stay that way, given the recent vote by my colleagues on the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) board to scrap the latest RFP process. Our two finalists followed the RFP process correctly and delivered qualified proposals. They’re coming to us asking permission to invest in our community; to activate a long-vacant piece of real estate; to bring new residents and new investment into Downtown Pensacola. But instead of putting this property back on the tax rolls, we decided to go back to the drawing board for the second time in just over a year.
And we wonder why some developers don’t want to work with the City of Pensacola.
We’re at important moment. Over the past decade, Downtown Pensacola has come back in a tremendous way. Commercial occupancy along Palafox Street is at or near 100 percent. In order for Downtown Pensacola to continue to flourish — and local businesses to continue to grow and thrive — we need more housing opportunities downtown. More people means more demand, which means more entrepreneurship, more jobs, and more money flowing through our local economy.
We had an opportunity with these proposals to add a significant number of residential units, but once again, we failed to seize the moment. Unfortunately, when it comes to city-owned real estate, this is just the latest in a series of missteps. With each failure, we further erode whatever confidence is left in the city’s process, or the lack thereof. When you lay out a process, and investors follow that process, only to have the whole thing thrown out at the finish line, it sends a bad message.
One of my colleagues on the City Council suggested that the City “rushed into this” and that we needed more public input. The reality is that we’ve been talking about this for ten years, and I think many people have said loud and clear that what they want is more housing opportunities. He also suggested we hire a firm to market the property. Call me crazy, but I can’t support spending more taxpayer dollars to market the property when we have qualified offers on the table. Another one of my colleagues spoke about how much it pains him “to participate in an arm of government that doesn’t facilitate development,” before voting to not facilitate development. And yet another wondered aloud if this property is cursed. If it is, it’s cursed only by our inaction and indecision.
How many construction jobs have we lost by rejecting these proposals? How many jobs could be created to support hundreds of new downtown residents? Many residents have reached out to me over the past two weeks to let me know how disappointed they are that we didn’t move forward with these proposals. Our rules allow a member of the prevailing side (those who voted to scrap the process) to make a motion to reconsider the vote. As leaders, we have a decision to make: we can keep studying and debating and waiting for the perfect proposal, and watch as that grass stays empty for another ten or twenty years; or we can show leadership, take action, and put this property back on the tax rolls.
Larry B. Johnson is the Pensacola City Council member for District 4.