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Shannon Nickinson: Make smarter community investments for a better future

Can we put our money where our mouth is?

That’s the question the Studer Community Institute’s metro dashboard is meant to ask — and hopefully answer.

The dashboard aims to be a road map to help build citizen-powered change, to make Pensacola a stronger, more vibrant community. A guide to know if our community is putting its resources where they will yield a meaningful return.

That’s not an investment mix Pensacola has always gotten right.

But if we expect to build a community that brims with entrepreneurial spirit, that values education and draws people to it like a flame, we have to get it right.

We have to invest the effort to build a better educated workforce of people with the skills to draw new companies in and help existing businesses expand, adding jobs that pay strong wages.

That, friends, is purposeful, worthwhile work that matters.

It matters because Cassandra Smith and her team at Lincoln Park Primary School are working to coach their voluntary prekindergarten teachers in twice weekly staff development meetings to make sure they are delivering coordinated instruction from a curriculum that will help 4-year-olds be ready to learn.

Those teachers need to present a united front, because about one of every five children in this community is not ready for kindergarten.
It matters because the Pensacola metro area is short by 3,000 units the number of homes it needs to meet the need that exists in the community for safe, affordable housing.

Which means people like 32-year-old Chastity Loveless have to hold their breath when they put their bills in one pile and their checkbook balance in another. Loveless, who works at a local water company, and her three children were living in a three-bedroom apartment that cost $850 a month. Utilities were another $200.

“Some months it took all of my paycheck just to make rent,” she told reporter Carlton Proctor.

It matters because the median income in Escambia County is $43,918. Half of the people working make more than that.

And the other half make less.

It matters because when there was a job fair for 300 openings anticipated with an aircraft maintenance company moving into Pensacola, only half of those who showed up met the company’s minimum requirements for employment.

It matters because the estimate is that half of the 305,000 souls in Escambia County don’t have health insurance. Twice county voters rejected measures to fund health care for the poor. This year, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed funding for charity clinics that work to fill the gap for those among us without insurance.

Yet 64.6 percent of our population is overweight or obese — and therefore at higher risk for a host of medical problems that will shorten their lives, diminish their productivity, and drain financial and health care resources for business and individuals throughout this community.

Smoking and obesity cost Escambia and Santa Rosa employers $800 million in 2013, according to the Partnership for a Healthy Community.
Imagine what else we could do with that money.

We already use public dollars to invest in things we think will make our community a better place to live and more economically vital.

Data provided by Property Appraiser Chris Jones shows that more than $250 million of property is off the tax rolls for up to 10 years thanks to economic development ad-valorem tax exemptions — EDATEs.

We as residents, along with our economic development experts, have decided that these are important investments in the future of our community.

We give up a little something — in the way of property taxes that would otherwise be paid by those holding the tax credits — for the return on investment we believe will result.

We invested about $62,500 in city and county money to install bollards to block vehicle traffic on downtown Pensacola’s main downtown “event streets” to help ensure the success of things like Gallery Night.

In the past three years, the nonprofit early literacy agency ECARE (Every Child a Reader in Escambia) spent $3,593.47 for classroom supplies for Wee Read, a program that gives preschool teachers resources they need to become better teachers.

For about $1,100 they put on four family literacy nights to help moms and dads and kids have fun, have some dinner, and experience the joy of reading together. They spent $856 to give children who need them books of their own.

It costs about $2,360 to put one child into a voluntary prekindergarten classroom.

It costs $8,400 for one Take Stock in Children scholarship. Take Stock pays for state college and offers academic advising, mentoring and guidance to at-risk students if they keep their grades up and stay in school.

Might efforts like those be worth putting a little more into?

Maybe not EDATE-level money, but maybe as much as we put into bollards.

But if that’s not the conversation we have, if those aren’t the questions we ask of our elected officials, of our business and education leaders — of ourselves — aren’t we just talking to pass the time?

If we aren’t applying the lessons of success stories — inside this community and outside our geographic boundaries — to the challenges of poverty, government accountability, low wages, poor educational attainment and poor health and public safety, aren’t we just paying lip service to progress?

If we want to build on the progress the Pensacola Metro area has seen in the last 10 years, we can do better.

We can have a little less conversation and a little more action.

Shannon Nickinson is an editor and fellow at the Studer Community Institute in Pensacola. Follow her on Twitter@snickinson. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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