The city of Pensacola altered its governing structure in 2009 after a tumultuous, and somewhat leaderless, decade. Now the city thrives under a strong mayor.
PENSACOLA — Losses piled up in the last decade for this coastal Panhandle city of 52,000 just east of the Florida-Alabama border.
A crippling hurricane preceded the recession. The recession was then exacerbated by a Gulf oil spill that received global attention. The city's population fell nearly 8% in the 2000s.
But by several measures Pensacola, home to the U.S. Navy's celebrated Blue Angels flight team, is in the early stages of a revival. Local officials call the city's emerging recovery “the Upside of Florida.”
Pensacola, moreover, is nearly three years into a substantial shift in governmental philosophy: In 2009 residents approved a new charter that, for the first time, meant city government would be overseen by a strong, or elected, mayor. That official would be the city's chief administrator and decision maker. The previous charter was a strong city council, which is normally marked by a ceremonial mayor and an unelected manager who supervises city services.
Pensacola is unique in its transformation because a strong mayor switch is rare, according to the Florida League of Cities. Sarasota has considered a strong mayor charter several times. Although city officials voted against a strong mayor in a 3-2 vote Aug. 20, the issue could resurface as a ballot initiative next year. Fort Myers, meanwhile, switched from a strong mayor to a so-called weak mayor in 2005. Bradenton has had a strong mayor charter since the early 1970s.
Tampa and St. Petersburg have strong mayors, too, and the city of Clearwater has flirted with going to a strong mayor.
But Pensacola did more than flirt. “Pensacola was certainly floundering a little bit,” says longtime local business leader and developer Collier Merrill. “We really needed to rally around one central leader.”
That rally was soaked back in 2004, when Hurricane Ivan barreled through town. The category three storm destroyed dozens of buildings and literally left a large chunk of the city's downtown underwater. A portion of a major bridge even collapsed into nearby Escambia Bay.
Two more unbending forces soon thumped any potential recovery: The recession that began in 2008, and the BP Gulf oil spill in April 2010. Both happenings conspired to drain most of the remaining life out of Pensacola's business climate. A comprehensive survey taken in between those two events found residents' negative perceptions of the city and its future had bubbled over.
Pensacola, a military town with a vibrant history, was sinking in a vortex of population declines, foreclosures and store closings. Several local business leaders say the situation was dire. The city dwindled into a punch line.
“We were seen as a rest stop on I-10,” says Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, a local native who moved to Miami and New York City before he came back home in 2002. “We were the redheaded stepchild of Northwest Florida.”
Pensacola, however, has begun to grow up.
The city's revitalization includes widened streets downtown that are now home to several new restaurants and shops. Commercial real estate occupancy downtown is up to 87%, and nearly 10,000 people work in the city's core.
The recovery also includes three economic development victories in recruiting new businesses to town. One is a regional UPS sorting facility, which moved from Mobile, Ala., late last year and came with 35 new jobs. Another is Majestic Candies, a manufacturer, which announced plans earlier this year to renovate a building in downtown Pensacola. The $6 million project, aided by some state incentives, will create 100 jobs downtown, city officials say.
A third victory is a revitalized financial services sector. Pen Air Federal Credit Union and First Navy Bank are consolidating and relocating in downtown Pensacola. Those projects will combine for several million dollars in capital investments, city officials say, and another 100 downtown jobs.
One more significant economic development win: A newly built minor league baseball stadium that lines the city's bayfront. The $16 million stadium, home to the Double-A Blue Wahoos, has become a civic icon since it opened in April.
Many local business leaders and residents credit Hayward, the first strong mayor, with leading the revitalization. Quint Studer, a well-known Pensacola entrepreneur who owns the Blue Wahoos, says Hayward has succeeded because of a charismatic leadership style that combines grace and bluntness with steadfast belief in Pensacola.
“The hardest thing (for a strong mayor) is you can't blame anyone else,” says Studer. “You have to be able to take risks, be passionate and be willing to see things all the way through.”
Hayward, 43, says he entered local politics both for civic pride and aggravation at his hometown's decay. A onetime New York City-based ad sales director for the Financial Times — who was also briefly a male model in Miami — Hayward worked in real estate development in Pensacola for eight years. He made, and lost, some money, but shuddered at the lack of economic opportunities.
“I was getting frustrated with things, and I knew I could do this and make it work,” Hayward says. “People were very vulnerable. We had to tell our story. We needed to brand our city as the place that's friendly to business. Our mindset was to change the culture.”
Hayward, while campaigning and then after he won the election, built a formidable network of elected officials nationwide, including five strong mayors, to lean on for counsel. The group included former Florida governors Jeb Bush and Reubin Askew, statewide leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. The strong mayors on the list included former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, Mobile, Ala., Mayor Sam Jones and Tom Murphy, Pittsburgh's mayor from 1994 to 2006.
The advice Hayward heard most often was to move quickly, be bold and take risks. Bush and Askew, especially, advised Hayward to not be timid. That was fine with Hayward, the self-assured son of a homemaker and a local building supply storeowner.
“I'm a guy who dreams big,” Hayward says. “I love it when people tell me I can't do it.”
That go-long mantra, though, has gotten Hayward into some controversy since being elected November 2010. Locals sometimes call him Mayor Absentee, a dig at the fact that Hayward hasn't attended many city council meetings. Hayward also promotes the city nationally and abroad, from New York City to Europe.
Pensacola city councilwoman Sherri Myers even recently sued Hayward for allegedly violating the city's charter. Myers contends Hayward over-extended control of how city council interacts with city employees. Hayward denies the allegations.
“Every strong mayor that I met with while doing my due diligence after the election prepared me for the growing pains,” says Hayward. “This transition has been a big change for everyone, but the charter makes it clear that the mayor is the CEO — I wouldn't have run if that wasn't clear. I'm focused on getting things done and moving Pensacola forward.”
Still, a political brouhaha over a mayor's whereabouts is miles away from Sarasota, where strong or elected mayor movements have failed at least four times since 1996. Two efforts were defeated in citywide referendums.
The strong mayor movement received new life this year, brought back by a group that includes Sarasota City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. Commercial real estate executive and downtown Sarasota entrepreneur Ian Black, who has been involved in past local strong mayor efforts, says semantics usually dooms a strong mayor proposal. People, says Black, tend to think of backroom deals and Hollywood-style power bosses when they hear “strong mayor.”
“We are advocating for accountable leadership,” says Black. “The city is in turmoil right now. We have no one to go as a champion. There is no one on city council leading the charge.”
While strong mayor proposals have failed several times in Sarasota, the recently hired city manager, Thomas Barwin, hedged his future. Barwin's contract provides for two years of employment if the city changes its charter.
But the odds Barwin will need to use that clause are long — and not only from local opposition. Lynn Tipton, director of membership development of the Florida League of Cities, says it has happened no more than 10 times in the last 20 years. The League of Cities monitors all 410 statewide municipalities.
Most cities Sarasota's size, in the range of 40,000 to 80,000 people, don't have strong or elected mayors. There are only four Florida cities out of 40 in that category with strong mayors, says Tipton. One is Pensacola. The other three: Apopka, in Orange County, Bradenton, and Plantation, in Broward County.
Cities with strong mayors in Florida are mostly the population hubs, like Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Tampa. The city council-manager government, with a weak, or ceremonial mayor, is more popular in mid-size cities largely due to administrative needs. The idea in many developing cities post World War II, says Tipton, was to have a professional manager run the city while civic-minded residents held part-time political office.
That's how it was in Pensacola for decades, and how it remains in Sarasota. “The beauty of a charter is no two are the same,” says Tipton. “It should reflect what local citizens want.”
There was opposition to a strong mayor charter in Pensacola before it ultimately passed. Much of the rhetoric there echoes what opponents say in Sarasota. In fact, the name of the political action committee to fight the Pensacola initiative was No Boss Mayor.
But Travis Peterson, a Pensacola-based political consultant who ran the pro-strong mayor campaign, and later, Hayward's campaign, says the city lacked a chief “cheerleader and rainmaker.” Peterson and others connected to the campaign, Believe in a Better Pensacola, also say the timing, during such desperate days, was a key ally.
“There was a feeling that Pensacola wasn't stacking up to our neighbors to the east and west,” says Peterson, such as Destin and Mobile. “We looked around to see what they were doing and what we weren't.”
Hayward took the chief cheerleader title with vigor. He leaned on business and social contacts from past work experiences in New York. Hayward also befriended another politician elected to office in November 2010: Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Hayward has asked Scott for advice, and he's also asked the governor to pitch Pensacola when chatting with others outside Florida.
The Pensacola business community, in general, likes what it sees, in both a strong mayor and Hayward.
“The morale of a lot of businesses is getting much better,” says Merrill, the prominent local developer. “We have one person with a vision who we can talk to.”
At a Glance: Ashton Hayward
Title: Mayor of Pensacola
Family: Wife, An Hayward, a model for Fort Myers-based Chico's. The Haywards have one son. (Ashton Hayward, a onetime model in Miami, appeared in a Chico's catalog with An Hayward last year.)
Education: Florida State, bachelor's degree in political science.
Previous work: Sales with AT&T and the Financial Times in New York; real estate development in Pensacola.
Mayoral challenge: The city, like many others statewide, grapples with a budget shortfall that collides with previously made pension commitments to employees.
“We can't sustain this kind of system,” says Hayward. “We want to solve it and solve it now. We can't be in the pension business.”
At a Glance: Pensacola
History: City is considered the first European settlement in the continental United States. The city later became the first capital of Florida. Andrew Jackson lived there in 1821, when U.S. President James Monroe named him Military Governor of Florida.
Military: The Blue Angels flight team, a U.S. Naval Air Station, and the National Naval Aviation Museum are in Pensacola.
Population: City's population was 52,197 as of July 2011. The Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent metro area has a population of 455,102.
Higher education: City is home to the main campus of the University of West Florida and Pensacola State College.
Sports stars: NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, also a star for the University of Florida, was born and raised and Pensacola. He graduated from Escambia High School. Olympic track gold medalist Justin Gatlin and professional boxer Roy Jones Jr. also grew up in the city. Former pro golfer Jerry Pate, who won the U.S. Open in 1976, lives in Pensacola.