Friday, May 28, 2010

The City and Education

No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks....

Summer vacation is fast approaching, when schools close their doors and kids find other things to do. Today, though, nine months of instruction is not sufficient to prepare kids for the future, for good jobs.

During the last year, the council has had repeated discussions about the role of the city in education, whether we should have a role or not. While some argue that we should not get into the education business, the truth is we are already in it. Our community centers and our library system are the city's contribution to education, particularly with our summer programs.

Researchers conclude that two-thirds of the 9th grade reading achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years, with nearly one-third of the gap present when children begin school. - Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap

Libraries are clearly educational, of course, since they encompass one of the 3 R's. However, their mission is much broader, bringing programming throughout the year to libraries, for both adults and kids. Adult programming includes using computers and book clubs. Kids programming include special presentations, ranging from wildlife to opera, and an American Girl book club. Many of these programs are supported by the Friends of the Library through their regular sales of donated books.

During the summer, the library hosts a summer reading challenge. Kids of all ages roll dice to choose a book genre, working their way toward a prize (a book to keep) while exploring the range of books in the library. In addition, there are weekly programs from magicians to puppetry, dancers to acrobats. All of this is to spur kids to keep reading during the summer, to keep their skills sharp for the next school year.

City recreation programs, too, are a great educational resource in the community. The athletes among you (and even some folks as uncoordinated as I) know the great skills kids acquire playing sports, skills beyond catching and throwing. Things like teamwork, self-confidence, quick thinking, and goal setting. Not to mention the general value of fitness and healthy lifestyles. And the range of sports available in our recreation programs is large--from basketball and baseball to tennis and golf, swimming, karate, even fishing and juggling.

In the era of the FCAT, many programs are cut from our schools to focus on the "essentials". That is one of the reasons our sports programs are so important as PE is more and more limited. The range of programming at our community centers is quite broad, though, filling in many of the gaps. For example, they offer dance, art, and even foreign language classes.

Our community centers also provide afterschool programming for many kids in our community. That programming includes homework help and access to computers. Many kids also attend preschool at the centers, helping prepare them to succeed in kindergarten.

Over the summer, our community centers are a buzz of activity. Each center hosts camps, providing a range of programming. While there is certainly plenty of time spent on the staples of summer camp, such as arts and crafts (lanyarns, anyone?) and talent shows, there is a lot of learning going on, too. Students get to go on field trips to various places (canoeing on the Blackwater, the PJC Planetarium, T.T. Wentworth) at a time when field trips are being cut from the school district budget. Special guest also come to present programs (from beach safety to cake decorating) for the kids.

Could we do more? Absolutely. However, we have to make hard decisions with our taxpayer's dollars. We are not the school district; we do not have education as our primary mandate. But through our existing resources, our libraries and community centers, we can work to improve educational achievement in our city, strengthening our workforce and attracting better jobs for our citizens.

You should be proud of the efforts by the city toward education outside of school. I hope you will spread the word about these great programs in our community so that we can keep learning going year round.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Maritime Park Update

For the past year, I have had a ring side seat for one of Pensacola’s most unusual projects, the Community Maritime Park. We all know the history: the initial Trillium plan proposal and its defeat, the new proposal and its ratification by the voters through a referendum, etc.

Like many, I had thought that the passage of the referendum took care of all of the issues, and we would soon see a park. Boy, was I wrong. I also have realized that we all have a different recollection of what we voted for in the referendum, a different dream of what those 30 acres of waterfront property will hold and how they will transform our city. There have been many drawings—sketches of the buildings, site plans—each shaping our vision. Now it is time to make our collective vision a reality.

In the last year I have been honored to be the city council’s representative on the Community Maritime Park Board. We’ve reviewed many contracts, considered many different site plans, and puzzled over financing. We’ve held a groundbreaking, but we haven’t seen much action.

This spring has been a turning point. We recently approved the design-build agreement with the developer, resolving many questions and thorny issues. Now bids are going out for significant construction projects, and we will start seeing some action. [If you are interested in providing services on this project, the bid notifications are posted at]

Last summer we were approached with an opportunity to jump-start construction through New Market Tax Credits. People involved in all aspects of this project have been working frantically to get up to speed on the credits and all of the regulatory nuances they entail. There have been wording changes in contracts, restructuring of the CMPA board, and many other changes necessary to take advantage of this money. As a result of these credits, an extra $12 million will be applied to the project, bringing many desired enhancements so that within the mandatory two year window the project will have many elements we all were expecting.

So, what should we expect? The contract for the park is broken into two pieces, the city funded part and the tax credit enhancements. The city portion is limited to $40 million. That money is broken into three components—the site work, the stadium, and professional costs.

The site work will use approximately $16 million. That includes lots of exciting elements like sanitary sewer and potable water, bulkheads, stormwater pipes, and earthwork (fill dirt). It also includes the more visible elements like roads and sidewalks, street lights, trees, benches, and landscaping.

The stadium, which is really more than just a baseball stadium, will cost $11 million to construct. The Pelicans will be a primary tenant, and they are working closely with the designers. The stadium will have 3200 seats, plus an additional 500 seats on terraces. There will be space for an additional 3000 seats on the field for a concert or similar performance. Underneath the seating there will be locker rooms, administrative offices, and spaces for two retailers.

The professional costs round out the bill. These are the engineering, permitting, legal, and developer fees, as well as the owners’ representative fee (they provide the oversight of the developer for the CMPA board) and the contingencies.

The New Market Tax Credits are expected to net about $12 million (we’ll know the final numbers at closing in the next week or so). That money will pay for some enhancements that you might be surprised weren’t in the original budget. A breakwater and marina. DeVilliers promenade (along the western waterfront). A public restroom in the south park. The amphitheater in the south park. Some stadium enhancements.

When will we see some action? The developer is soliciting bids on some of the elements now. And the new design-build contract requires the developer to be substantially complete by the end of December, 2011. There have been many delays, but now we have stringent deadlines.

Taken all together, this construction will create a great foundation for building a fabulous amenity for our community. Alone, it is not sufficient. Notice I didn’t mention a museum, restaurants, offices, stores. Those are not part of the city’s contribution to the project. UWF is still working toward the maritime museum. The Studer Group is working with the developer on coordinating the construction of their office building. The developer is working on luring restaurants and other private development to enliven the park. All of these elements are moving forward, and the development of some of the private parcels should occur in tandem with the rest of the project.

It has been a long, bumpy road, but we now see some light. I look forward to all components of the project moving forward rapidly so that at the grand opening in the end of 2011, we will have a wonderful project that will make downtown Pensacola a magnet for families, school kids, workers, and tourists and a catalyst for new jobs and investment in our community.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bayfront to be open to pedestrians and bicyclists two Sundays in June

Update (5/26): The event will happen June 13 and June 27. Plan on coming down!

The Opportunity
. Pensacola’s most unique asset is our waterfront, particularly the downtown waterfront. The more opportunities we have to enjoy it, the more we are reminded what a great place Pensacola is.

However, we rarely have real access to our waterfront. We can zoom past it on Bayfront or Scenic. We can go to a few parks. But most of our waterfront is cordoned off for the people who can afford to own water views. Opening Bayfront to pedestrians and cyclists will provide opportunities for us to enjoy our beautiful waterfront with the added benefit of bringing people from across our community together, encouraging them to exercise and meet their fellow Pensacolians.

The Action. The city council and staff have agreed to test the idea. We are now working out the details for two trial closures, to be held on Sundays in June. If these are successful, if people demonstrate that they want this type of recreational access to the downtown waterfront, the council will consider how to make these a regular occurrence.

The plan is to block off Bayfront Parkway from Tarragona/Barracks Street to Chase Street. People will have the opportunity to walk, bike, skateboard, or rollerblade on the road. This stretch also includes two large park areas, Veterans Park and Seville Square, which may encompass related activities. Once the dates are set, I plan to provide more information.

The Cost. Of course, everything has a cost. While staff has worked to develop a plan to minimize costs, money is necessary. Especially in tough financial times, we need to limit spending on anything that goes beyond the City’s core missions. That’s why I am seeking to underwrite this with private funding.

Success will be measured not only by the attendance but also by financial contributions. Our budgets are tight. If this is to become a regular activity, we will need to be able to count on the private sector support. While the city has the physical resources (the road, the barricades), we will need the private sector’s financial resources to implement and sustain this program.

I have spoken to many who are supportive of this idea. Some, who see the benefits of this program, whether drawing people downtown to their business, making Pensacola a more attractive community, or encouraging exercise, have offered sponsorships. If you know of businesses or individuals who would be willing to contribute financially, or if you yourself would, please let me know. The cost estimate is about $1000 per Sunday. Based on the responses I've heard so far, I am confident that there is lots of support for this program, and I hope that will translate into enough funds to cover the cost.

Whether or not you are able to contribute financially, I hope you will join us for this celebration of fitness, our waterfront, and our community.