Harper: Development Surging In Downtown Pensacola

Jan 19, 2017

In this week’s Economic Report, Dr. Rick Harper looks at a recent uptick of economic development in the local area and a new solar project for local military facilities.

Two new upscale hotels, an Aloft and an Element, both Starwood brands, are planned downtown between 9th Avenue and Salamanca Street.

Credit Michael Spooneybarger/ CREO

“That’s got to be good for downtown,” Harper said. “The beach is a wonderful tourism asset. Of course, values there are focused during the 10-week summer season. And to get hotels in the downtown area that can cater to meetings downtown; that can cater to people that want to enjoy and be based in the historic downtown while they do other things in the immediate area and the region – that’s certainly good.”

Harper said it’s encouraging that after the business owners have seen enough growth potential in downtown to build the two new properties.

“Overall, it’s a very positive statement about economic development in downtown and growth in the area,” he said.

Also downtown, the former Escambia School District building is set to be redeveloped.

“The property has mixed use going in, including some residential and some retail planned for the site,” Harper said. “Some meddlesome details do remain in terms of cleaning up some contamination at the site, but once that gets done, it will be great to see development going in, particularly west of Palafox.”

While development has been occurring throughout downtown, Palafox has gotten the most attention in recent years. Harper said seeing that barrier fall is a step forward.

“To have a complete, thriving, robust downtown of many blocks instead of just a couple, developments like that are necessary to get the population density to support the restaurants that will make the downtown seem like a thriving and interesting place,” Harper said.

Gulf Power and the military are working at several local installations, including Saufley and Whiting Fields in Pensacola and the Army facilities at Eglin, on a project to install solar panels to generate electricity.

“These are large sites. They are talking about enough electricity to power 18,000 homes across the three areas, and that’s made possible because of the decrease in cost of generation due to better-quality technology for solar panels,” Harper said.

This new technology is making the switch from traditional fossil fuels much easier and less expensive.

“With the decrease in cost of generation for solar, it becomes competitive,” Harper said. “It’s interesting to see the federal government via the military leading the way to develop these technologies. They may be looking for other uses for them in other places, so this may be somewhat of a test bed for them.”

Estimates are that the new solar panels will save several million tons in carbon emissions over the life of the project, Harper said.

In Okaloosa and Walton counties, Haas Center Director Zach Jenkins recently spoke to builders and realtors about the state of housing in that area.

“Zach said what is on people’s mind – that the housing market continues to be vigorous,” Harper said. “I was just looking at the price growth figures for the Pensacola area this week, and we’ve actually seen that 2016 overall saw price increases for residential on the order of 5 percent. Zach enumerated some of those increases as well as growth in the economy for Okaloosa and Walton. One of the takeaways was that the demand for homes is growing faster than the supply.”

Unlike in past years, Pensacola job growth outpaced Okaloosa in 2016, Harper said.

“It’s great to see the Northwest metro areas doing well,” Harper said. “That should continue into the future, and that’s a good sign because this is the part of the business cycle – when there’s good strong expansion – where Florida really takes off and kind of leaves Northwest Florida in the dust because we have the more stable military industry here that doesn’t grow jobs as quickly.”

Dr. Rick Harper is an economist at the University of West Florida. He can be reached at rharper@uwf.com. CREO staff writer Mike Ensley contributed to this report. He can be reached at kensley@uwf.edu.

This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.