Ambitious 1970s capital program changed the city

Steve Garman

In 1978 Steve Garman, then city manager of Westminster, Colo., was approached about taking a similar position in Pensacola.

“I loved Colorado and had no reason to leave my job at Westminster,” he said. “But I came down to Pensacola and was blown away by the opportunities, and all the man-made and natural resources the city had. That was a huge draw for me. “I thought, this is a canvas that’s barely been painted on, and there’s a lot that could be done here.” And a lot he did. Garman took the job and went to work, putting together the landmark program he called “Direction 85.” To fund Direction 85’s ambitious slate of capital improvements, he persuaded the City Council to sell the city’s water and sewer department to the Escambia County Utilities Authority for some $20 million. Leveraging every dollar, Garman set in motion what would be perhaps the most creative and influential capital improvements program in the city’s modern history. Under Direction 85, the city initiated the building of Spanish Trail, the Pitt Slip marina, Bay Bluffs Park, new City Hall and various recreational improvements. Garman worked closely with private developers who, with financing assistance from the city, built Port Royal condominiums, Harborview on the Bay office building, the Hilton Hotel (now the Crowne Plaza), and worked closely with county officials in getting the Pensacola Civic Center (now the Pensacola Bay Center) built. Now retired and living in Gulf Shores, Ala., Garman spoke about his role in that era of growth in Pensacola and the challenges he faced. Question: What were some of the things working in your favor when you took over as Pensacola city manager in 1978? Answer: Well, I had an incredibly effective staff and we had a very strict charter that spelled out distinct lines of authority and accountability between the city council, the city manager and the mayor. And, ultimately that’s a huge benefit for everyone because it protects you and everyone else in doing their jobs. That system was working beautifully then, and (Mayor) Vince (Whibbs) was perfect for that. And, you didn’t have lot of personal agendas or personal hostilities on the council then. It didn’t spill over that badly in terms of everyone deliberately getting in everyone’s way. Q: So, what were some of the first things you took on once you made sure all the departments were running smoothly? A: We reduced city staff from about 1,200 to 900 by cross training people in certain departments. In a couple of years that resulted in a pretty sizable budget surplus. Then we sold the water and sewer system to Escambia County Utilities Authority, and that netted some $20 million. Q; What did the Council do with that $20 million? A: A lot of it was put into Direction 85. It gave the city enough income to look at a pretty massive capital improvement program, more massive, as it turned out, than I had envisioned. And, interestingly enough, a lot of what we did really didn’t cost that much. There was lot of bang for the buck. Like the Bay Bluffs Park. Much of that land was donated. It was a tax write off for the guy who owned it. The capital project were spread all over time, and not just in the downtown area. We made sure they were very broad-based improvement programs under Direction 85. Q: You are a big believer in the role cities should play in stimulating private capital investment. A: Yes, I am, because the one thing city governments can do more efficiently than the private sector -- and it’s the only thing -- is capital financing. Cities can finance at tax exempt rates. For example, the private sector can do things at a 6 percent borrowing rate, and the city can borrow the same dollars at 3.5 percent. So we took full advantage of that. Q: You also believe that it’s more important for a city to grow its capital base than necessarily growing its population. A: I’ve never thought of the growth of a city as being population based. Growth to me is capital based. If population is so great, how come Philadelphia is not a better place to live than Pensacola? It’s growing the capital base of the economy that will allow quality of life to improve. Q: How important then is it for a city to be a driver of that capital growth? A: It’s critical. Without the city, nothing else can happen. The bottom line is if the city government isn’t investing in itself, nothing is going to happen. I’ve made this point over and over. But, having said that, most of the positive results of Direction 85 came from the private sector that became engaged and excited about the city’s potential and future. Having the private sector partner with the city is essential for long-term progress in strengthening the foundation of the city so it can improve the quality of life for its residents. Q: When you launched Direction 85 it wasn’t an easy sell. Didn’t many factions in the community oppose many aspects of the plan? A: When we did Direction 85 there were a number of obstacles to overcome. If I recall there were some 25 different lobbying groups that didn’t want some portion of it to happen. And you can’t really try and negotiate with that many groups. So the only thing you can do is just do it. It’s that way in every city, every I’ve worked for and every city I will ever be in. Some people just don’t want any kind of change, it’s threatening. But I’ve also learned that the more convinced you are that it’s the right thing, the easier it is to convince people this is the right decision. Q: You describe your management style as that of an “initiator.” What does that mean? A: I was never interested in the day-to-day stuff. I appreciated it and knew it had to happen, and happen well. But I also knew there were a lot of people who could do it a lot better than I could. Q: Do you think it would be harder or easier to launch and accomplish something like Direction 85 today than 30 years ago? A: No, I don’t think it would be harder. But I think if there is a difference it’s there is far less control within the political system today with the strong mayor because there’s always the question of who’s in control. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, I think it’s the fault of the structure. And I would add that historically, in this country, it’s not usual to find cities the size and demographics of Pensacola with a strong mayor form of government. The strong mayor form is the norm in some of the larger East Coast cities, some of the older cities. that’s where you typically find the strong mayor governments. If you look west of the Mississippi there’s probably not more than a handful of cities under 55,000 that have strong mayor. They almost always have a council-manager form. Q: Do you think it was a mistake to change the city’s charter to a strong mayor form? A: No, it’s what the people of Pensacola wanted, and it was a legitimate vote that was the outcome of whatever circumstances existed at the time. I mean, it’s not all bad, but I think it’s harder to get things done in that kind of environment. With council manager government everything is distinct. Everything is very clear cut so you don’t have a lot of gray area. In the early years of changing government there is going to be a lot of headaches and a lot of working out things that no one has ever had to work with before. So there’s always going to be a certain amount of growing pains when you change the form of government. Q: What are Pensacola’s advantages today? A: A huge advantage Pensacola has -- and this is pretty amazing -- is you’ve got an international airport, an international seaport, and this town reeks of classic Old South. It reeks of military, and reeks of high tech. All of a sudden you’ve got this combination of things going on here. I defy you to find some other city the size of Pensacola with these kinds of assets. And I think people here don’t realize what you have here because they’ve lived with it so long and don’t have as broad a view of what other cities throughout the country have. Very unusual to find a city with that much infrastructure diversity built into the city itself. Q: And a city having those assets and infrastructure is a good thing because? A: Because you can control so much. I don’t care who you want hand the ball to, whether its the Greater Pensacola Chamber, or the Downtown Improvement Board, nothing is going to happen unless it goes through City Council. So sooner or later that ball is in the council’s court. So the more you can streamline that process, since you know you’ve got the make that decision anyway, and try to get as much out of the way of that process, the better off you are. Q: You first set eyes on Pensacola in 1978. When driving around the city now how has it changed over the last 35 years or so? A: There’s a lot of infilling. If you could take a snapshot of Pensacola in 1978 and compare it to today, you would see back then a fairly barren environment by comparison. There wasn’t the spark, or the energy back then. Today the city is much more vibrant and that’s terrific. What Quint Studer did with stadium is fantastic. It’s a matter of creating a market, and now downtown has a market that people want to go to. You’ve got to create that. People have to get excited about a place. Q: So, what you’re saying is this city’s come a long way since 1978. A: Yes, it has, and I’d like to think we had a lot to do with that in terms of getting it started. Pensacola residents today should be very excited about the energy and creativity we’re seeing from the private sector side and their willingness to partner with the city to continue to improve the quality of life for all its citizens.

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