PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — For decades, Pensacola's quiet downtown was overlooked by tourists lured instead to the sugary white sands of the nearby beaches. But a major push to revitalize the long-neglected business and office district is slowly bringing visitors back downtown.
Upscale eateries and wine bars have replaced the strip clubs and pool halls that once lined the city's main drag. Young sailors from nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station still frequent the area, but nowadays are often lured by the family friendly art and music scene rather than the bars. And a new minor-league baseball stadium draws thousands of fans to downtown's once-dilapidated waterfront.
Gallery nights attract up to 15,000 visitors each of the seven Fridays a year they are held. Weekly outdoor musical evenings in a downtown park draw up to 8,000 visitors each night .The baseball stadium averages about 6,000 fans each home game.
"In the last five years, I've never seen this much growth in Pensacola," said Nick Schuck, who owns a business giving Segway and bike tours of the downtown.
Schuck's business has nearly tripled in the one year he has been open as thousands flock downtown for the various events.
"I was seeing all the change and revitalization happening down here and I had seen Segway tours in other cities. I wanted to bring that here. Pensacola has every bit as much history as St. Augustine or Charleston, but people don't know about it," he said.
The city's history dates to the 1500s when the area was first discovered by Spanish explorers. Pensacola is known as the City of Five Flags because of it has been ruled at various times in its long history by the Spanish, French, British, Confederate and American governments.
Downtown Pensacola's renaissance is part careful planning and part good timing. Hurricane Ivan smashed through the area in 2004, forcing many downtown businesses to close because of extensive damage and lost income. A lull in development because of the nation's economic crisis followed. Many prime business locations remained boarded up for years.
Local entrepreneur Quint Studer saw the potential for a more vibrant downtown and began purchasing vacant buildings and lots. Studer also brought the Blue Wahoos, a Cincinnati Reds minor league team, to the new waterfront stadium.
"When we find people who haven't been to Pensacola for a while, they are amazed to see all that is happening here," he said.
In 2005 downtown Pensacola had 486 businesses — today there are 674.
Among the biggest changes, development at the intersection of downtown's two key streets — Palafox and Main. For years, the four corners of the intersection contained empty buildings and vacant lots. Today, a California-style outdoor eatery comprised of small Air Stream trailers serving various foods sits on one corner, a residential and commercial development is underway on another and remodeled building with several thriving businesses sits on a third. Construction of a new bank is planned on the remaining corner.
On a typical weekday, professionals mingle with tourists at the restaurants and shops lining Palafox Street. Toddlers splash through water spouts in a community fountain and water park that sits at the end of the Palafox pier. Banners advertise various downtown concerts and festivals for the coming weekend. On Saturday mornings, a popular farmers market always draws a crowd.
Bill Elebash owns a downtown jewelry store that has been in the same location on Palafox Street for 30 years. He has seen a lot of change in the last several years.
"It has been a gradual improvement of downtown in all different categories. New owners are buying old buildings, renovating them and bringing in new blood and enthusiasm," he said.
Elebash credits the new ballpark and aggressive efforts to promote the downtown with events like the Gallery Nights, when businesses stay open late and display the works of local artists.
"I didn't know how well things would come back after Ivan. The street in front of our store was on national TV and it looked like we were up to our waists in water. Up and down our street, there was damage. But things have come back and they have come back stronger," he said.
Elebash said he sees more tourists downtown than ever before.
"You can pick them out and I always try to talk to them and introduce myself. I've met people from Chicago, Michigan and a lot of other places that are pretty far away."
Jaco's, a popular restaurant and bar, opened a few years in a prime downtown waterfront location that had been occupied by another restaurant destroyed in Ivan. General manager Wade Beroset said the increase in foot traffic through the area over the last year has been phenomenal.
"I've always thought Pensacola Beach is beautiful, but I love downtown. It seems now that downtown is finally becoming a destination for the tourists, before they would never leave the beach," he said.
Tourists Len Werner and his wife Priscilla from Philadelphia mingled with the fisherman and pelicans along downtown waterfront on a recent morning. The couple has visited the Pensacola area before but has never spent much time downtown.
"It is a beautiful place to go for a stroll," Werner said. "There is a lot to see, a lot to keep us busy here."
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