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Carl Wernicke: Civic Engagement & Taco Bell


I’ve been happy to see the debate over the Taco Bell planned for Cervantes Street in East Hill. Just as with renewed interest in the development of downtown’s west side, and a surprisingly effective challenge to county development plans in Beulah, residents have reawakened to their ability to influence their community’s direction.

Over my three decades at the Pensacola News Journal, we always depended on an educated, aroused citizenry to inform, and usually lead, our reporting. The PNJ itself seldom initiated these efforts. Instead, we were educated by individuals and groups who took it on themselves to get educated first. They often began this process after getting blindsided by forces that had been working quietly behind the scenes with elected officials who residents, often mistakenly, thought were working primarily to represent them.


In the end, these people often did win the expected representation, but only after organizing enough support to demand it. And while they might have lost as often as they won, there were enough wins to demonstrate that when ordinary people get involved, local government can be persuaded to follow along.


Which leads me back to Taco Bell, by a roundabout path.


Several years ago I joined a small group of local residents to attend a seminar in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, offered by the Conservation Fund. The non-profit group offers training and resources to help people organize effectively to achieve projects in their local communities, generally aimed at conservation and the environment. It can be concrete projects, such as the popular rails to trails conversions, or influencing development policies. Several people in my seminar have worked on ensuring that the new bay bridge will have good pedestrian and bike paths, and to expand bike paths on local roads into a connected grid.


A highlight of the seminar was a talk by planning consultant Ed McMahon. His message was that communities that insist on high standards for development prosper economically, especially when they insist on architectural standards that maintain the unique character of their community. In the past, different parts of the country looked different; but the proliferation of fast-food and retail franchises has brought a numbing conformity that can make it hard to tell if you are in Pensacola, Boston or California. If everywhere looks the same, what’s the point of traveling?


But McMahon said that a little known secret is that in many cases, all you have to do is ask, and commercial chains will work with you to meet local standards. He showed numerous examples of how retail and fast-food chains were willing to adapt their designs to meet local standards.

So I was really pleased when McMahon was brought to Pensacola as part of CivicCon, and delivered exactly that message. And it was fortuitous, to say the least, that his examples included a Taco Bell in Colorado where the company agreed to adapt an historic house rather than tear it down and build a generic restaurant. He said it has become one of the most visited Taco Bells in America.


A recent op-ed in the PNJ by a member of the East Hill Neighborhood Association pointed to McMahon’s talk, and noted that Taco Bell’s website proudly displays its “coolest” designs around the world. The company obviously takes pride in working with communities and to be a good neighbor. All you have to do is ask.


Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have development codes to back you up.