Every once in a while, a person likes to spruce up their surroundings, and so do municipalities. Pensacola, Fla., is no different in that sentiment. The city has obtained the funding and done careful planning to make it happen, and for about the last 20 years, improvements have been achieved through the Pensacola Neighborhood Challenge Grant.
Kelsey Powell serves as community liaison and outreach coordinator for the city, following some solid years as an English instructor. Three years into his position, he said he still enjoys it. “But it depends on what day of the week it is. The first year was a bit of a learning curve, although the process is pretty self-explanatory.”
“I enjoy meeting people. I have to be careful though,” he joked. “I don’t have hair, so I can’t lie and say I pulled my hair out solving a situation for them.”
Powell said the Pensacola Neighborhood Challenge Grant started around 2008 or 2009.
“It was instituted by the city council to help with beautification and homeowner improvements. It was as simple as having available funding, although that’s a big thing. The city allocated $50,000 a year, and the neighborhood association does a two-to-one matching grant. That means the city covers two-thirds and the rest can be cash, in-kind donations or the contribution of labor,” he said. “Right now, labor is worth $20 an hour. And it’s a great opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other. They schedule community workdays to clear parks, plant things and so on. It’s sweat equity. It not only makes the neighborhoods look better, it improves their relationships with each other.”
The grants cover pretty much what you’d expect, Powell added. “Signage, sidewalk improvements, all kinds of things that make an area more attractive. The neighborhoods are all kinds, to be honest. There are several subdivisions, and one is a historic neighborhood, part business and part historic homes.
“Two Christmases ago in a neighborhood known as the Blocks, which was a big African-American community in the ʼ30s, ʼ40s and ʼ50s, funds were awarded, and the business owners and neighbors got together to help with cleaning up the streets and putting up lights. They even hired electricians. It was all real pretty for Christmas, from Thanksgiving to the beginning of the new year.”
The Blocks is a very special part of Pensacola history. For the first half of the 20th century, it was known as the “Harlem of the South,” a thriving district west of downtown with businesses, entertainment, civic organizations and residences – an asset worth preserving and celebrating.
Pensacola, Powell said, is a pretty happy place. “The Navy comes through Pensacola for training, and there are a lot of military retirees here, so we didn’t have a lot of blight. This was just an opportunity once the money was available.”
The grant money covers more than a person might think. According to a city program sheet, in addition to physical improvements, the money can be used for activities like family and home safety training, drug and fire prevention programs, cultural exhibit areas, literacy programs, computer labs, after-school enrichment programs, music, dance and art training. Powell helps evaluate the applications, checking “to make sure every ‘t’ is crossed and every ‘i’ is dotted. I make sure it’s a viable project, and then it’s forwarded to a committee that will decide if it can be funded.”
Then Powell takes it a step further. “Sometimes they can’t be funded because of the nature of the project. But just because the city can’t do it doesn’t mean there might not be some other money available to help. If it’s not eligible through this program we say ‘Hey, let’s try this or maybe that other funding.’ There’s always a way to do things. And if you have a clear vision for where you want to go, and how, well, essentially you have a roadmap.”
Applications for the Fiscal Year 2022-23 Pensacola Neighborhood Challenge Grant will be accepted through June 30.
“We get more inquiries than anything,” Powell said. “We probably get, I’d say maybe eight or 10 applications a year. There are only be 25 or 30 associations within the city limit, so eight or 10 is actually quite a lot. And the associations can only be awarded every other year.”
According to Powell, there can be obstacles to solve in the proposed projects.
“The biggest hurdle associations run into would be the requirement that it has to be on city-owned property or association-owned property. Say some group wants to put up a ‘Welcome to the Neighborhood’ sign, but it’s on state property, or there is infrastructure underneath. That would complicate it or even make it impossible.”
“We had one a couple of years ago concerning Carpenters Creek, which was protected by the federal and the state government,” he said. There are some pretty places to live around there, and they wanted to remove some vegetation so there could be better views of the creek. But that probably would have caused erosion issues and threaten the property, which we couldn’t let happen. The plan was not feasible because of the potential dangers to Carpenters Creek. But I do my best to be sure they get funded, to come up with some other way to get the results. If we can’t do what they first ask, we offer alternate means, or ask them to bring back another form of proposal with the right kind of changes.”
The city’s ultimate goal is to give as many people what they want as is possible.
“Neighborhoods can apply every other cycle. If some people have a big master plan, they might break it up and do one component, and then when they can, come back and apply the next time to do another one.”
Pat Fogg did that with the Montage of Pensacola Homeowners Association. Over a 20-year period, an area on Spanish trail has seen the completion of a gazebo, a roof over association mailboxes, a flagpole in front of the entrance and sidewalks that now comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, making it easier for residents to walk around their area. Powell said that was exactly how the projects were done: in increments, “It’s really nice there now.”
He suggested that any town wanting to start something like this plan begin with the money.
“Find where your funding can come from first. Ours comes from the general fund, and anything left over in a fiscal year gets rolled over for the next time. We can accept a request from someone who’s started a project: They can ask for what was allotted before, to let them finish what was begun. I don’t think it’s difficult to get something like this started, really. You decide what the rules will be.
“There have to be multiple bids. You have to be competitive and be transparent throughout the process. You have to have a council and an elected body. But make sure that funding is in place first and then come up with your criteria.”
Powell laughed when he said, “Sometimes people will call for updates. I discovered what I call ‘the speed of government.’ There has to be due diligence, you have to make sure everything is okay, legal and viable. You have to wait on the individuals who do that and let them do that due diligence. It doesn’t always happen in a week, or even a month. I try to give a weekly update, a quick call, a ‘Hey, this is where we are.’” However long it takes, residents might begin look around and see what they can do to realize improvements and beautifications in their own backyard. If the city gets involved, their ideas just might come to fruition the way they have in Pensacola.