Pensacola can learn from Savannah says Mayor
Learning lessons from Georgia’s Atlantic Coast, and applying them to the western Florida Gulf Coast was the gist of Monday’s news conference with Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.
Pensacola and Savannah are 380 miles apart — roughly seven hours on the road — but Mayor Grover Robinson is studying how that city does things in a number of areas. The mayor led a delegation of city, county, and private-sector leaders to Savannah last week. He was asked what Savannah is doing and that perhaps Pensacola should be doing.
One area is parking downtown.
“I think they probably started stuff ahead of us; they have a little bit more of a base,” said Robinson. “They’ve got some infrastructure, some parking garages, parking decks. They’re kind of moving away from more parking decks, but I reminded them that they have more than we have — we have none. But they went and put some infrastructure in — they’re not looking to expand any of those, but they talked about their surface parking. They charge over $2 for their parking surface — we don’t. That’s not what we’re looking to do one way or the other, but we’ve got a long way to build up.”
Savannah’s focus on historical preservation began earlier than in Pensacola, according to the mayor, in telling the story of the 289-year-old city.
Another focus includes modern-day amenities.
“They have significantly more hotel inventory than we do,” he said. “We’re seeing hotels being built all over downtown Pensacola, so I think we’ll come to a point where we can be in that point,” the mayor said. “They talked about their numbers, their economic impact that tourism means to them. We think tourism is certainly successful and important to us in Escambia County.
"But they have three times the amount of tourism in Savannah,” he added. “I think downtown can be a player in Escambia County tourism. I think we can be what Savannah is in some of those ways. The other thing that was awesome there is, they’ve got a lot of rooftop bars; and we’ve been waiting to have a rooftop bar here in Pensacola.”
Robinson also compared Savannah’s development of its east side to that of Pensacola’s bay front, saying this city can learn from Savannah in general, and about that city’s infrastructure in particular.
“Certainly they have great parks the way they were designed, [but] I would stack up Plaza Ferdinand, Bartram Park, Veterans’ Park, Plaza de Luna, Maritime Park — I would put those competitively with anybody,” he said. “We just haven’t found a real good way to connect them all together, but right now we’re looking at how do we connect them. And of course, we’re [also] talking about putting a new park at Bruce Beach.
"You want to build the kind of place where people want to live – you’re going to want to build a place people want to visit.”
While in Savannah, the Pensacola entourage met with the local tourism bureau, which is part of the Chamber of Commerce. Annexation in Chatham County, says the mayor, is a bit different than Escambia County, Florida, given in part to differences in Georgia and Florida law. There’s also a geographical factor.
“There are a few differences, but they definitely have a partnership with Chatham County,” said Robinson. “One of the things that came out of it, is that they also are on a border. And I think they’re still working with South Carolina and learning how they integrate. I asked that question, so what do you do with South Carolina? They were like, ‘Well, we do more than we used to but we still don’t do that much.’ I think we’re in the same place with Alabama.”
One of the ideas the mayor favors is combining the Pensacola and Mobile regions into a metropolitan statistical area — MSA — he says the setup is already in place.
“We have the same TV markets, the same radio markets in both communities," Robinson said. We would have almost 1.2 million people. And I don’t think people see us that way sometimes; I don’t think we see ourselves that way sometimes. There’s opportunities that I saw that they weren’t taking advantage of [in] partnering with South Carolina.
"We should take more opportunities to continue to work with our neighbors to the west as well in Mobile. We have these little rivalries that we see on the Gulf Coast, but on the worldwide spectrum and the national spectrum, they don’t even know who we are.”
Robinson believes one advantage of a combined MSA is that it would bring to the area more recognition from, for example, private institutions who would see it as much more viable.
But he also concedes they’ve not done a very good job in marketing the region.
“I don’t think most of us tend to think of ourselves as really being in an area that’s developing and has a million people in it,” he said. “I think when you look at that, and the four counties would be, there’s a significant amount of people in that area, there’s a significant amount of business going on, and there’s still a significant amount of property as we work forward, and look for the future. So there’s still a lot of growth potential still there.”
Further developing a partnership with counties in Alabama, Robinson contends, would be a win-win on both sides of the state line.