Shannon Nickinson: Ivan was an ill wind that blew some good for Pensacola

 It shouldn’t take an act of God for Pensacola to make progress, but sometimes it feels like it does.

Three of the largest projects successfully undertaken in this community in the last 15 years — moving the Main Street sewer plant, building the Community Maritime Park and launching Rebuild Northwest Florida — came in whole or in part from Hurricane Ivan.

Ivan was a monstrous Category 3 storm when it roared ashore on Sept. 16. It left ruin in its path, leaving no corner of our two-county area untouched.

It also left us opportunity, though it sure didn’t feel that way at the time.

Ivan brought us an opening for change that we had lacked the political and social will to embrace otherwise.

For decades, people insisted it would be too expensive and difficult to move a sewage treatment plant out of downtown.

Even as the price we paid for having it there was a stagnant downtown, an underutilized waterfront and a noxious smell that lingered over downtown.

It took Ivan crippling the plant, sending sewage into businesses, homes and flowing down city streets to bring unwavering public and government consensus that it had to be moved off the waterfront.

Without Ivan, we might still be trying to prop up Bayfront Auditorium, a cinder block municipal auditorium with all the ambiance of a middle-school gymnasium and the acoustics to match.

After Ivan, plans coalesced around the idea of a maritime museum, University of West Florida classrooms, a public park and baseball stadium with space for commercial business on what had been a polluted lot known to those who worked with the homeless as “The Badlands.”

Ten years later, Community Maritime Park is a showpiece — notably without the involvement UWF originally promised — that is growing daily with additional private investment.

Rebuild Northwest Florida has hardened more than 9,000 homes in the two-county area. It began as a group of concerned citizens trying to help those who couldn’t afford to make Ivan-related repairs to their homes.

Its funding comes from the federal government. Its practical application comes from citizen volunteers who hope their efforts will mean the toll the next storm takes on our housing stock will be mitigated.

What is Ivan’s legacy?

When bad things happen, the government can give us the money to fund change, but only we — private business and focused citizens — have the power to make that change last.

And here we are in 2014, just four years removed from the BP oil spill, awaiting another windfall.

The fine money that could flow here under the RESTORE Act is a pot of money we won’t see for a generation.

We cannot squander it. We cannot be consumed by infighting about who “deserves” a bigger slice of the pie. We simply cannot risk losing this chance, this gift, to make a lasting impact on the quality of life in our community.

If we want real progress, then we must use the RESTORE money to build a community resilient enough to weather any storm.

Shannon Nickinson is a columnist who lives in Pensacola. Follow her at Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Shannon Nickinson


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