For Grover C. Robinson IV, former mayor of Pensacola, Florida, being involved in the local community wasn’t as much a choice as an obligation. His father Grover III (a state representative for 14 years) and his grandfather Grover Jr. (a longtime judge) drove home the importance of using your time and energy to make an impact in your community.
During his mayoral campaign, he told the Pensacola News Journal (PNJ) that it was not enough to live somewhere and that he was taught it was his duty to “participate and make his community better”.
“That doesn’t mean you had to go into elected office, but there was certainly an expectation that you served on community boards. That you did things to make the community better,” Robinson told the PNJ.
That commitment to service, which spans 12 years on the Escambia County Commission and four years as mayor of Pensacola, has driven him to lead or support several initiatives that shape the Pensacola we see today. This includes cultivating and promoting an arts culture that has ignited the city’s economy and allows it to be a year-round tourist destination.
One of the most significant shifts Robinson championed in his time in office was the diversification of Pensacola’s tourism-based economy. While nearby cities like Destin and Gulf Shores rely heavily on seasonal beach tourism to drive tax revenue, Pensacola uses one of the most vibrant art scenes in the South, highlighted by the Pensacola Museum of Art, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, and major events like the Foo Foo Festival and the Gulf Coast Jazz Festival to drive visits during non-peak seasons.
“I think one of the biggest things we did in the early 2000s was realizing that if we were going to be a great community, we had to be a community that people wanted to be a part of ”, said Robinson, who also served on the city’s planning board. “So, we began to focus on our amenities. For so long our focus was that we have great weather and the beach, but when you look at Florida, there are a lot of places that have great weather and the beach. So how do you begin to distinguish yourself ? I think that was where we realized that the opportunity to capitalize on our culture and heritage was certainly there. In Northwest Florida, there are a lot of places, including Destin and Orange Beach, that have great beaches, but after a while on the beach, you want something else to do. I think the only place that gives you that downtown experience is Pensacola.”
A key part of diversifying Pensacola’s economy was shifting the perception of the impact that arts and entertainment could have on the city from both a placemaking and revenue-generation standpoint. To do so, a shift also had to be made in how the arts were funded.
Until 2008, art organizations in Pensacola were supported by the Arts Council of Northwest Florida, which was formed in 1969. However, after 40 years, it was determined that the group’s approach to promoting the arts did not drive broader interest, including from visitors to the city. The local arts and business communities formed Art, Culture, and Entertainment, Inc. (ACE) in 2008 and focused primarily on raising money and providing grants for the city’s arts organizations and artists.
The organization receives funding from Escambia County as part of a unified budget with Pensacola Sports and Visit Pensacola. The decision to combine the budgets was driven by the desire to promote partnership among organizations with the shared goal of bringing more people to Pensacola. As they work together and bring increased tax revenue, each organization’s portion of the unified budget increases as well. ACE uses the funding it receives from the county to provide grants to support programming from local arts organizations.
Image courtesy of Foo Foo Festival
Of the development of ACE, Robinson said, “There were a lot of organizations coming in and seeking money, but the money wasn’t making its way to the arts, and it was getting tied up in the Arts Council. So, the idea of ACE was to come in and level out some of the administrative parts and get more dollars to the actual arts organizations. And in doing this, they needed the government to come in and provide some additional money. And so, we went into tourism development and said, ‘Ok hoteliers, we’re going to give you something in a shoulder season to drive visitors to the area.”
Pensacola’s primary tourist season is from March to September, which Robinson said was why ACE created the Foo Foo Festival and hosted it in November. The Foo Foo Festival is a 12-day celebration that features performances from artists and arts organizations throughout downtown Pensacola. According to ACE, last year’s event welcomed over 75,000 visitors, a fourth of which were from outside of Escambia County, driving an estimated $12.7 million in economic impact.
Overall, the arts have been good to Pensacola. Along with providing critical acclaim for a bevy of arts and entertainment festivals, a 2015 report from the Arts and Economic Prosperity Project estimates that arts organizations in Escambia County generated over $58 million in economic impact.
For Robinson, making his community better has not only meant advocating for it and championing a diverse economy but also fighting for it during tough times like the wake of the BP Oil Spill. Robinson was instrumental in lobbying for Florida’s Gulf Coast counties to garner a portion of funding granted as a part of the RESTORE Act. The act ultimately allocated $292 million in relief to Florida, with $70.9 million going to Escambia County by 2031.
“My dad said you don’t want to govern where you live. It’s too messy. I thought, ‘How do you make the place you live better if aren’t willing to do it?’ It can be very messy, but it can also be very rewarding. So, I think at the end of the day, if you have a passion, if you want to make your community better, there’s no better thing to do than public service, and there’s probably nothing that could be more rewarding for me.”