April 18, 2014

Community Portrait

Escambia, Okaloosa and Bay Counties

More than just gathering data, we're capturing elements that make each community distinctive.

Pensacola's Saenger Theatre
Pensacola’s Saenger Theatre is listed in the National Register of Historic Sites.

Quality of Life

> Strengths

  • Cost of Living: By most measurements, Escambia, Okaloosa and Bay counties have lower costs of living than state and national averages.
  • Small-Town Virtues: The higher incidence of natives in many communities’ populations helps foster a stronger sense of community. The cities are less congested, as reflected in travel times to work, which are more than 25% below state averages.
  • Schools: Both the Bay and Okaloosa county school districts received “A” grades from the Florida Department of Education. Students in grades 4 through 10 in Okaloosa schools didn’t rank lower than third in the state in reading and math scores, based on the percentage showing proficiency. County students ranked first in both math and reading in grades 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10. The Okaloosa district also pioneered the CHOICE program that provides high-skills job training to high school students, enabling them to earn certification for certain in-demand technical jobs as they complete high school. The program has become a model statewide.
  • Young Leadership: Pensacola, in particular, has young businesspeople in its leadership ranks. Pensacola Young Professionals is a 500-member group that’s actively involved in civic life.

> Challenges

  • Politics: Consensus remains a big challenge in Pensacola and throughout northwest Florida. There’s a stark ideological divide between the rural, northern parts of the counties and the developed southern areas, including the beaches. But rural politics too often dominates local commissions.
  • Downtown: Pensacola’s downtown, which has the largest concentration of independent retail in the region, is struggling to maintain quality retail in this economy, especially amid competition from nearby Destin and Baldwin County in Alabama.
  • Redevelopment: Downtown Pensacola also suffers as a result of city parochialism that may soften after a spate of progressive candidates won seats on the City Council last November. For example, the City Council refused to consider expanding the boundaries of the Downtown Improvement Board to include more of the west side. The area, largely African-American, will be crucial to downtown redevelopment as the city finally gets rid of the downtown sewage treatment plant and replaces it with a 40-acre maritime park.
  • Crime: Among Escambia, Okaloosa and Bay counties, the only county where “crime risk indexes” are consistently above average for Florida is Escambia. Both Pensacola and some smaller communities like Molino and Century have risk profiles much higher than state averages in most categories. In other parts of the region, however, crime risk indices are lower. Okaloosa County ranks 52 out of 67 counties in violent crimes, with 369.9 per 100,000 residents, compared with a statewide rate of 705.5 per 100,000.
  • Transportation: Air travel to and from the region is still difficult and expensive — a fact that could change as the new international airport takes shape.
  • Defense-heavy: The military’s presence is so dominant that it could hinder the emergence of a more well-rounded economy.

Tags: North Central

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