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COVER STORY | Vol. 12, No. 4, January 28, 2010
(Rising Stars 2010)

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2010 Rising Stars

by Rick Outzen

Attracting and Retaining Talent Starts Here

Attracting and retaining talent in the greater Pensacola area has been on the minds of community leaders since Hurricane Ivan hit our shores in 2004. It was after that devastating storm that Florida's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, in partnership with the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and Escambia County, hired TIP Strategies, Inc. to develop an Economic Diversification plan for Escambia County.

TIP Strategies pointed out that the percentage of 25- to 44-year olds in our community was declining and saw stemming this talent drain as a challenge for economic development. Three years after that report was published, area residents still see it as an issue. The 2009 Quality of Life Survey published by the Better Pensacola Forum revealed that a majority of our residents give Escambia poor ratings as a place to live for recent college grads looking for work, young singles and families raising children.

Both the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the City of Pensacola have expressed interest in attracting and retaining young professionals and families. The City's 2010 plan for its Community Redevelopment Agency has an affordable housing component to attract more of this age group to live in downtown Pensacola.

The Pensacola Chamber had Rebecca Ryan, author of "Live First, Work Second," speak at its annual meeting on how Pensacola can start competing as a 21st Century city for 20- to 40-year olds. The Chamber has a task force working on just that.

At the Independent News, we have always found it best to ask questions of those we're trying to help. It sounds simple, but that's how the Pensacola Young Professionals started. In 2005, leaders were talking about young professionals, but few were actually talking with them. And even fewer were listening.


What we found when we listened was that many had a deep love for this community but were frustrated by the lack of jobs, affordable housing and diversity. Many felt outside the decision-making process.

The Independent News and the Pensacola Chamber spearheaded the formation of the Pensacola Young Professionals and have supported their efforts to serve as the voice of that generation on local issues. We also began our Rising Stars program to honor the leaders in the under-35 crowd.

For the past five years, Independent News has published a list of Rising Stars, individuals who work or live in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties who are seen as the upcoming leaders in their professions and in the community. Each year the number of nominees of talented men and women under the age of 35 grows, and our panel has a difficult time culling the list down to the top third.

The 2010 Rising Stars include attorneys, dancers, musicians, environmentalists, teachers, students and a cancer survivor. They were selected for their promise and their passion. And as before, we asked these stars how we can attract and retain more of their peers.

"There are so many more people in the area that would love to thrive in the community, but there are not enough job opportunities for them," explains Rebekah Ann Lee, Assistant Director for Sponsored Research at IHMC. "If we get industries clean and green here, you would not only create jobs, but also enable people to shop in our area and support our local economy and smaller businesses. We would see Pensacola's economy begin to blossom and flourish."

Many of the Rising Stars expressed interest in the continued revitalization of downtown Pensacola and improving our waterfront.

"I would really like to see the continued improvement of downtown Pensacola," says Cameron Stephenson, attorney with Levin Papantonio. "I live on South Alcaniz Street and that is a prime example. They have redone the entire street and it looks spectacular.  

"I would like to see the same thing accomplished throughout the rest of the downtown area. I think we are on the right track with new restaurants, bars, and shops coming back into the area, but we need to support these businesses and continue the development."

Dance instructor Jessica Jensen agrees, "I'm looking forward to the beautiful renovation at the corner of Garden and Palafox streets downtown, Vinyl Music Hall, a venue to rival the Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans, booking a caliber of bands this region has yet to see.

"The expansion of Ballet Pensacola to 10 professional dancers and the Discover Dance program provides the greater Pensacola area artistry at its finest."


For the third consecutive year, the Maritime Park has ranked as one of the top three things that the Rising Stars would like to see accomplished in the next five years. Many worked for the passage of the Maritime Park referendum in 2006 and are disappointed that we still are waiting for construction to begin. Some believe the new city charter is a step in the right direction and are open to more review of our governmental structure.

Karen Szulczewski, Communications Director for the Better Business Bureau, wants to see the Maritime Park built and more review of the size and structure of local government, "be it consolidation or something else."

"In my previous job, I spent several months in West Palm Beach," says Szulczewski. "They switched to a strong mayor system years ago, which led to increased accountability for moving the city forward. The new mayor implemented a redevelopment plan that included many of the elements now in the Maritime Park plan and transformed a city literally on the verge of bankruptcy to a thriving city now bringing in millions of dollars in tax revenues every year. We have the potential to have an even better version of that here."  

Rob Bell, sales associate with John Carr & Associates, is tired of consultants. He recommends "fewer 'studies' and more implementation."

Engineer Patrick Jehle believes in "local officials developing 'out of the box' solutions to lingering problems that exist in our community."


At the heart of the frustration of many of these rising leaders is a realization that it is execution, not studies, ribbon-cutting ceremonies and Powerpoint presentations, that will attract and retain talent. It will not be our plans, but our execution of those plans that will define this community in the upcoming decade.

These Rising Stars will be a part of the execution. As you read their brief profiles and see their passion for living here, you will agree that they are more than ready to answer the challenges facing us. And if the axiom "Great talent attracts great talent" is true, then Pensacola will have little trouble finding more Rising Stars in the years ahead.

Click here for a complete list of this year's Rising Stars
What Matters to Rising Stars