Many have lamented frequently, in this paper, Pensacola’s tradition of raising high-quality professionals, only to ship them off to better and brighter job markets. Pensacola’s next mayor has the unique opportunity to stop that. Whoever wins in November is in the unique position to take advantage of the work-from-home (WFH) revolution.
Some companies have bet big that remote work will allow young, white-collar professionals to alternate between vacation destinations like Hawaii, Miami or Vail. While this is not incorrect, it clouds the vastly more important reality of remote work: WFH allows those same young, white-collar professionals to live independently of industry-centric metro areas. Now, those who were born, raised, and educated in Pensacola can remain near their families while also accessing competitive, in-demand, and alluring job markets.
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Students who never dreamed of being able to work for Facebook or Apple anywhere but Silicon Valley can do just that. That being said, Pensacola cannot outcompete the glitz and glam of Hawaii, Miami or Vail. However, it can compete with industry hubs like Silicon Valley (tech), Charlotte (banking), and Huntsville (defense contracting and engineering). To do so, Pensacola’s next mayor will have to ensure our city is an attractive and competitive option for those who can live and work anywhere. The best way to do so is to increase Pensacola’s stock of affordable housing, provide an enviable quality of life, and dream big.
The allure of Pensacola is its affordability — the median price of a home in Pensacola is over 25% cheaper than the median price of a home state-wide. However, that median price has increased steadily over the past four years. Since 2018, the price of a home in Pensacola has grown by over $100,000. Now, it is easy to lure workers from high-cost metros like San Francisco and Washington D.C with the comparatively cheap sticker price of even the most expensive homes in Pensacola. However, if this town hopes to stay competitive with the aforementioned regional competitors, the city’s housing stock must remain competitively priced.
The best way to do so is to deregulate the zoning and parking requirements that restrict housing construction and development. Strategies like making accessory dwelling units, AKA ‘granny flats,’ easier to build and allowing gentle density such as ‘missing middle housing’ (the type of housing that is bigger than a single-family home but smaller than downtown’s Southtowne Apartments) is one way to increase Pensacola’s housing stock.
Another way to increase housing affordability is to remove excessive parking requirements such as those that mandate one parking space per 75/square feet for cocktail bars or two parking spaces per newly constructed home — reducing onerous government regulations such as these to allow property owners the right to do with their land as they please can promote affordable housing in Pensacola in a politically palatable way.
Further, Pensacola must strive to provide the cultural and civic amenities that larger cities offer: amenities like efficient public transit, quality public parks and enviable cultural events. The good thing is that Pensacola is not starting from scratch. However, underutilized and old public parks, infrequent public transit used usually by those without other options, and high-profile pedestrian deaths are all indicators that Pensacola has plenty of room for improvement.
Similarly, Oklahoma City’s MAPS program, a voter-approved, temporary sales-tax increase, provides a compelling example of how local governments can responsibly spend public dollars. The MAPs program transformed the city not by building tourism boondoggles, but instead by expanding popular government services. Since 2007, OKC voters have approved billions of dollars in public funding to repair sidewalks, create bike lanes, build libraries, improve schools, construct streetcar routes, and redevelop public parks.
Most importantly, the OKC example is not indicative of the usual rural-urban divide in which a Democratic-leaning city in a red state supports liberal public services at the city-wide level. Instead, this is the same city that has elected a Republican to Congress nine times out of 10 over the past 20 years. Mick Cornett, OKC’s former mayor who championed the program, has spoken at length about this: the MAPS sales-tax measures with expiration dates, approved by voters, are a successful way to generate excitement, public support, and buy-in from the community around civic projects.
Pensacola’s next mayor will have plenty of tools at their disposal to ensure Pensacola can take advantage of the WFH revolution while also ensuring our city is an affordable, exciting place to live for its existing residents. All that’s needed is political courage and creativity.
Wilson Trawick is a third-generation native of Pensacola, a Booker T. Washington High School and University of Florida graduate, and a former congressional staffer for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
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