4 big takeaways from Pensacola Mayor D.C. Reeves' CivicCon state of the city update
Pensacola Mayor D.C. Reeves spent just over an hour Tuesday night at a CivicCon event discussing and answering questions about his administration's priorities, methods and takeaways just under three months into his four-year term in office.
One of his key messages was that, regardless of what individual projects or problems he faces on a given day, a major priority is that he, his staff, the City Council and the citizens are "all rowing in the same direction."
"If you've been to coming to CivicCon since 2017, the quote I always use from Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute ... 'When you have no plan, everything fits.' So, we have to get better aligned — both as an administration, as a council, as staff and as citizens — of what is our direction forward? And I can do my best to come up with every idea that is logical and data driven and well thought out and meticulous. And at the end of the day, without a strategic plan, I may not be going in the right direction."
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Reeves, speaking to a packed house at The REX Theatre in downtown Pensacola, discussed everything from a $300,000 city investment into a city-wide strategic plan, to his vision for economic development, to staff wages and recruitment, to attainable housing.
Here are some key takeaways from the discussion:
Reeves is building a coalition around restoring Amtrak service in North Florida
In a recent trip to Washington D.C. as part of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Reeves met with the CEO of Amtrak and talked about the opportunities created by $66 billion of a recent federal infrastructure bill being earmarked for passenger rail.
Reeves said since meeting with the Amtrak CEO, he's spoken to roughly 15 people in the Southern Rail Commission, three people at Amtrak and every mayor between Pensacola and Tallahassee with a train station in their town. He said the mayor of Tallahassee is now speaking to everyone between the capital and Jacksonville.
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"We're gonna build a coalition and apply for what's called a corridor ID grant through the Federal Rail administration, which is half a million dollars that just lets us figure out if we can do it," Reeves said. "So we're not obligated to anything other than that, but we now have a real funding stream to help study this."
Reeves said he had spoken to CEO of the company that has purchased the railway that runs from Escambia Bay to Jacksonville, and while the executive did not make any guarantees, Reeves said he was "open minded and willing to be supportive" of the endeavor.
The final coalition will likely include around 30 people, according to Reeves, and the effort might result in passenger rail service from Mobile, Alabama, to Jacksonville; from Mobile to Pensacola; something in between or nothing at all.
"I can't promise you whether we're going to get Amtrak or not, I would be crazy to do that," Reeves said. "But what I'll tell you is five years ago and five years from now is the wrong time. If we're ever going to look at (restoring Amtrak service), it is right now. And I'm talking about in the next 12 to 18 months, not service getting here, but that we vet this out and see if this is possible."
Without public safety, nothing else matters
In January, the City Council approved a major investment in public safety measures that include a suite of technology upgrades for police officers, two additional officers in the downtown urban core area, a new tactical vehicle to replace the Pensacola Police Department's outdated SWAT van, restoring the deputy fire chief of operations position in the Pensacola Fire Department and more.
Reeves, referencing issues like housing, economic development and city maintenance, said, "We can talk about all of these other things and if we're not a safe community, none of them matter."
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Discussing his successful request for additional officers downtown, Reeves said the two officers serving the downtown CRA district were having a huge impact, but couldn't be there 24/7.
"What I can tell you is the area that we proposed here is about 4% of the surface area of the city of Pensacola and it takes 23.3% of our calls. So that doesn't mean that those are all violent. That doesn't mean they're all major crimes. But the officer doesn't delay (because of that). You call, they show up."
Reeves expressed excitement about the technology upgrades that could be coming down the pike, noting that they would make interactions safer for officers and citizens.
As an example, he said they were reviewing technology where, "If a (officer's) gun is pulled out of its holster ... every camera in every (police) car and every body camera turns on within a certain number of yards, 100, 200 yards. So these are things that are going to get us modernized and certainly keep you guys safer."
Attainable housing solutions will require housing density
Reeves said his administration is looking at all options of creating attainable housing for Pensacola residents, noting "nothing is off the table."
The city is reviewing its Land Development Codes, the rules that govern what can be built where.
He said that increasing density of development would definitely be part of the conversation, but he said residents shouldn't be afraid that means a nine-story apartment complex would go up next door to their single-family home.
"Cities have gotten really, really smart about how to add density in a smart way and in a way that you may not notice. In a way that adds character, actually, to your community," he said.
He noted that nearly every adult has, at some point in their life, rented an apartment, and ensuring apartments and other varieties of housing options is vital to bringing in new workers and attracting our children and grandchildren to their hometown.
"We've got to start getting smarter about how does four, one-bedroom units work versus one four-bedroom house," he said. "So, on the market side, we've got to be smarter about building supply, period."
He said people often opposed creating new market rate housing and demanded that all new housing include some "affordable" element. Reeves noted that developers were subject to market pressures that meant sometimes only market rate housing is feasible and profitable; that new market rate housing creates "migration" that allows wealthier renters to upgrade, opening up their old units to less affluent renters; and that property taxes from these new developments fund the rest of the city.
He noted, "34% of the money that we have in our general fund is because of property tax. It's the largest single line item. The second largest is franchise fees — that is your water bill, your cell phone bill that the city gets a couple nickels on every month. So you take those two together, that's half of our general fund. That's how we pay for police. That's how we pay for other initiatives, some of the things you saw that I mentioned tonight."
He made the case that he wanted to move past the idea that only affordable housing is good, that market rate housing is only bad, and that density was a dirty word.
"As this process of Land Development Code (continues) and you hear conversations of density, remember this: Some of the most beautiful duplexes, quadplexes we have in this entire city are some of the most historic buildings we have. So this is not new. This is not a new concept. This was happening at 90 years ago."
Pensacola is filled with opportunities and optimism
Reeves said a document that is top of mind for him every day is a Quality of Life Survey, in which a majority of Pensacola residents expressed confidence the city and City Hall were headed in the right direction.
He said the city is working to improve each day, with an eye toward ensuring wages are competitive, that staff is happy and well trained, and that they were investing time and effort into the right things.
He said department heads are in the process of developing "Priority A," "B" and "C" projects, and that those projects would shift based on the needs of the city and citizens.
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Reeves said he is looking to partner with the county and other community partners to pool their resources on solutions to homelessness; that the city looked at every traffic and maintenance project in city limits as a opportunity to find ways to improve traffic safety and walkability; and he noted he has already received approval to hire a senior grant writer and a grant manager, and is seeking approval Thursday to hire an economic development director.
"Someone who's going to wake up every day (thinking) about how to bring jobs in the city," Reeves said of the positions. "Someone's gonna wake up every day with unprecedented infrastructure money coming from the federal government, never seen it at this level before. Two people are gonna wake up every day trying to figure out how to get their money to Pensacola. And so those are things that we talked about in the campaign and all those positions will be staffed this month."
Reeves noted he had surveyed his 62 supervisors, and generally they cited concerns about about wages, recruitment, a lack of strategic planning and outdated technology. Reeves has obtained funding to study wages and staffing, with a goal of ensuring the city was competitive and staff are being compensated fairly.
And he noted the positive supervisors named in the survey included committed staff, good teamwork, high morale and satisfaction with the responsiveness of the administration. He said one of the things staff were asking for was more training, and indicator that they cared about their work, their own opportunities for growth and the level of service they are providing the public.
"These are good things to read," Reeves said. "You feel like you've got committed employees. You fell like morale is good. There's always room for improvement, but not every CEO, not every mayor gets to walk into a situation where all of the people who supervise people feel this way."
Reeves' presentation was part of CivicCon, a partnership with the News Journal to raise the community's civic IQ through good civic conversation.
Because Reeves was not able to answer all of the communities questions within the time constraints of Tuesday's events, he will have a follow-up Q&A session with moderator and News Journal Executive Editor Lisa Nellessen Savage later this month.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Mayor D.C. Reeves talked Pensacola jobs, Amtrak and more at CivicCon