Pensacola’s re­vival

This city is a good ex­am­ple of how con­certed ef­fort can re-brand a once sad and seedy place oft over­looked by tourists.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TRAVEL - By MELISSA NEL­SON-GABRIEL

FOR decades, Pensacola’s quiet down­town was over­looked by tourists lured in­stead to the sug­ary white sands of the nearby beaches. But a ma­jor push to re­vi­talise the long-ne­glected busi­ness and of­fice dis­trict is slowly bring­ing visi­tors back.

Up­scale eater­ies and wine bars have re­placed the strip clubs and pool halls that once lined the city’s main drag. Young sailors from nearby Pensacola Naval Air Sta­tion still fre­quent the area, but nowa­days are of­ten lured by the fam­ily-friendly art and mu­sic scene rather than the bars. And a new mi­nor-league base­ball sta­dium draws thou­sands of fans to down­town’s once-di­lap­i­dated water­front.

Gallery nights at­tract up to 15,000 visi­tors each of the seven Fri­days a year they are held. Weekly out­door mu­si­cal evenings in a down­town park draw up to 8,000 visi­tors each night. The base­ball sta­dium av­er­ages about 6,000 fans each home game.

“In the last five years, I’ve never seen this much growth in Pensacola,” said Nick Schuck, who owns a busi­ness giv­ing Seg­way and bike tours of the down­town.

Schuck’s busi­ness has nearly tripled in the one year he has been open as thou­sands flock down­town for the var­i­ous events.

“I was see­ing all the change and re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion hap­pen­ing down here and I had seen Seg­way tours in other cities. I wanted to bring that here. Pensacola has ev­ery bit as much his­tory as St Au­gus­tine or Charleston, but peo­ple don’t know about it,” he said.

The city’s his­tory dates to the 1500s when the area was first dis­cov­ered by Span­ish ex­plor­ers. Pensacola in Florida is known as the City of Five Flags be­cause it had been ruled at var­i­ous times in its

Vi­brant: long his­tory by the Span­ish, French, Bri­tish, Con­fed­er­ate and Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments.

Down­town Pensacola’s re­nais­sance is part care­ful plan­ning and part good tim­ing. Hur­ri­cane Ivan smashed through the area in 2004, forc­ing many down­town busi­nesses to close be­cause of ex­ten­sive dam­age and lost in­come.

A lull in de­vel­op­ment be­cause of the na­tion’s eco­nomic cri­sis fol­lowed. Many prime busi­ness lo­ca­tions re­mained boarded up for years.

Lo­cal en­tre­pre­neur Quint Studer saw the po­ten­tial for a more vi­brant down­town and be­gan pur­chas­ing va­cant build­ings and lots. Studer also brought the Blue Wa­hoos, a Cincin­nati Reds mi­nor league team, to the new water­front sta­dium.

“When we find peo­ple who haven’t been to Pensacola for a while, they are amazed to see all that is hap­pen­ing here,” he said.

In 2005, down­town Pensacola had 486 busi­nesses; to­day, there are 674.

Among the big­gest changes, de­vel­op­ment at the in­ter­sec­tion of down­town’s two key streets – Palafox and Main. For years, the four cor­ners of the in­ter­sec­tion con­tained empty build­ings and va­cant lots.

To­day, a Cal­i­for­nia-style out­door eatery com­prised of small Air Stream trail­ers serv­ing var­i­ous foods sits on one cor­ner, a res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment is un­der­way on another and re­mod­elled build­ing with sev­eral thriv­ing busi­nesses sits on a third. Con­struc­tion of a new bank is planned on the re­main­ing cor­ner.

On a typ­i­cal week­day, pro­fes­sion­als min­gle with tourists at the restau­rants and shops lin­ing Palafox Street. Tod­dlers splash through wa­ter spouts in a com­mu­nity foun­tain and wa­ter park that sits at the end of the Palafox pier. Ban­ners ad­ver­tise var­i­ous down­town con­certs and fes­ti­vals for the com­ing weekend.

On Satur­day morn­ings, the pop­u­lar Palafox farm­ers mar­ket al­ways draws a crowd.

Bill Ele­bash owns a down­town jew­ellery store that has been in the same lo­ca­tion on Palafox Street for 30 years. He has seen a lot of change in the last sev­eral years.

“It has been a grad­ual im­prove­ment of down­town in all dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories. New own­ers are buy­ing old build­ings, ren­o­vat­ing them and bring­ing in new blood and en­thu­si­asm,” he said.

Ele­bash cred­its the new ballpark and ag­gres­sive ef­forts to pro­mote the down­town with events like the Gallery Nights, when busi­nesses stay open late and dis­play the works of lo­cal artists.

“I didn’t know how well things would come back af­ter Ivan. The street in front of our store was on na­tional TV and it looked like we were up to our waists in wa­ter. Up and down our street, there was dam­age. But things have come back and they have come back stronger,” he said.

Ele­bash said he sees more tourists down­town now than ever be­fore.

“You can pick them out and I al­ways try to talk to them and in­tro­duce my­self. I’ve met peo­ple from Chicago, Michi­gan and a lot of other places that are pretty far away.”

Jaco’s, a pop­u­lar restau­rant and bar, opened a few years in a prime down­town water­front lo­ca­tion that had been oc­cu­pied by another restau­rant de­stroyed by Ivan. Gen­eral man­ager Wade Beroset said the in­crease in foot traf­fic through the area over the last year has been phe­nom­e­nal.

“I’ve al­ways thought Pensacola Beach is beau­ti­ful, but I love down­town. It seems now that down­town is fi­nally be­com­ing a desti­na­tion for the tourists; be­fore, they would never leave the beach,” he said.

Tourists Len Werner and his wife Priscilla from Philadel­phia min­gled with the fish­er­man and pel­i­cans along down­town water­front on a re­cent morn­ing. The cou­ple has vis­ited the Pensacola area be­fore but has never spent much time down­town.

“It is a beau­ti­ful place to go for a stroll,” Werner said. “There is a lot to see, a lot to keep us busy here.” – AP

a mu­si­cian per­form­ing in down­town Pensacola. For decades, Pensacola’s quiet down­town was over­looked by tourists but a ma­jor push to re­vive the long-ne­glected busi­ness and of­fice dis­trict is slowly bring­ing visi­tors back. – aP

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