What a difference fifty years can make.
Now that Mayor Hayward has started 2012 with a vision for the Port of Pensacola that is free of unsightly aggregate heaps or similar industrial eyesores, it’s worth looking back at the city’s 1962 waterfront plan, which had a remarkably different vision. As the above image shows, the city expected industry — and lots of it. In the 1962 report, Planning Director Daniel F. Krumel recommended a massive expansion of the port that would have literally created acres of new land zoned for industrial use.
Let’s back up for a moment. A lot of people think of the port’s history as an unbroken series of heydays from timber to fishing to modern industry, and oh what a shame that nowadays our biggest tenants are cement and frozen chickens. In fact, by the time World War II provided a brief resurgence in coal and oil shipping, the port’s best years were already behind it. The Port Authority was established to revitalize it more permanently, but they had no assets or property until the L&N and other railroads, not seeing a future in Pensacola, sold their wharves as a tax write-off.
For years the Port Authority persevered in the face of setbacks. Fires destroyed most of what they had bought from the railroads — first in 1948, burning 500 feet of the old L&N docks, and again in 1955, destroying the port’s only coal tipple, and yet again in 1958, wiping out the conveyor system. Then the U.S. broke off trade relations with newly communist Cuba in 1960, erasing forty percent of the port’s business in an instant. Yet in 1962, with a new $3.5 million facility under construction, the future seemed bright. As the Pensacola News-Journal said at the time:
Like Phoenix from the ashes, a new port is slowly emerging from the waters of Pensacola Bay. … Under the direction of Port Director Philip Alvarez and the Pensacola Port Authority, the Cuban trade was made up with increased shipping to other areas. New ideas were tried, new deals worked out, such as the $30,000 a year or more contract for storage of nitrolime in one of the city’s warehouses. … [A]ccording to Alvarez, business in the port is being hampered only by a lack of available facilities. Warehouses are now at full capacity, he said.
Krumel’s waterfront study, which led to the establishment of “Shoreline Drive” (Bayfront Parkway), recommended a major reclamation project that would have eventually expanded the port all the way to 9th Avenue.
East of Jefferson Street, the new port facilities are now under construction. Further expansion of the port will be to the east and the extent of future expansion is almost unlimited. … It is recommended that the area located between Alcaniz Street and 9th Avenue, south of the proposed fill be reserved for future port development.
Clearly, the expectation was that growth would continue. After all, the port was integral to the city’s economy, with at least one in every ten jobs traceable to it.
So how did we get to where we are today — with a port that frequently costs more than it makes, and only a handful of local jobs to show for it?
More fires, for one thing. The Frisco docks, where the Maritime Park is now being constructed, went up in flames in December 1966.
Then there was the preservation movement. Mary Turner Rule et al began their efforts to restore and preserve the historic residences of the Seville neighborhood in the mid-60s. With the “Evening in Olde Seville Square” events starting in 1966, people started seeing downtown as a place for recreation — and the old warehouses as a sign of blight.
City Manager William Law, imagining the port as a potential revenue source, set the stage for the city to take over the Port Authority. It became a department of the City of Pensacola in 1976. While subsequent city councils enjoyed the money it added to the coffers, they blanched at the major investments needed to remain competitive. Budgets for marketing and capital improvements declined in the 80s, and the port’s business followed suit.
As the industrial jobs started to leave, others in Pensacola wondered if we really wanted them anyway. There were environmental concerns. The odor from the asphalt tanks was a hindrance to residential growth, and the big trucks going to and from the port were noisy and hard on the roads. With Alabama pouring money into Mobile’s port, wouldn’t it be better just to get out of the port business altogether? One of the biggest steps down the current road came in 1997, when operations switched from an “operating port” to a “landlord/tenant port.”
A few years ago, in those heady days of the real estate boom, there was a movement to replace the entire port with mixed-use development. Then the bottom fell out of the real estate market, and all those proposed condo plans got tossed in their respective architects’ dustbins. Based on comments Mayor Hayward has made in the past, many assumed that he would seek a similar mixed-use future for the port, but he made it clear at Thursday’s announcement that condos were not a part of the plan.
Instead, the path forward will use Pensacola’s proximity to western Gulf states, where oil and gas drilling is allowed, to service offshore vessels and to serve as Florida’s “first responder” to disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill. It’s not the end of the port, but it’s certainly a departure.