Our view: Escambia Greenway isn’t fit for public use

Recreational trail should be praised but must also be maintained.

The Southwest Greenway in Escambia County is a promising project: twelve miles of trails, boardwalks, and other paths connecting Bayou Chico to Perdido Bay, showcasing area treasures like the Jones Swamp Preserve, and improving recreational opportunities for Pensacolians and visitors alike.

The greenway is meant to be the western terminus of the Florida Greenways and Trails system, allowing anyone to bike or walk from Key West to Perdido Key. Development of the Southwest Escambia Greenway was begun more than a decade ago, and Escambia commissioners deserve credit for working to expand this forward-thinking concept.

We’ve been looking forward to reporting on the latest expansion of the greenway in Warrington. We’ve been pleased to see taxpayer dollars being spent on a worthy project — one that promotes environmental restoration and education and facilitates outdoor recreation activities like birdwatching, hiking, picnicking, and biking in one of Pensacola’s most important neighborhoods. Creating such a resource in Warrington, a community known for its naval heritage and resilience, would surely prove to be a popular resource and attraction.

A sign marks the entrance to the Southwest Greenway in Escambia County on Old Corry Field Road in Warrington. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Unfortunately, after visiting the greenway several times over the past few months, our senior editor Drew Buchanan quickly discovered that while the county continues to spend money to expand the greenway, the current facilities are being neglected.

The scenery is beautiful, capturing the essence of Old Florida, but it’s marred by the litter that lines the banks of Jones Creek, overturned shopping carts, and other debris. For a place that’s supposed to be a preserve, it’s, well, anything but preserved. Visitors to one section of the greenway are greeted by bags of trash that have been there for weeks. Signs posted at entrances warn visitors that littering is prohibited, and punishable by a fine and/or jail time, but with no apparent enforcement, it’s little more than a empty threat.

We recognize that county officials can’t keep the greenway — or any recreational facility — in pristine condition every minute of every day. But the problems we observed weren’t one-time things. Sadly, the lack of maintenance was sharply apparent on several visits over recent weeks.

But the bigger question is this: why are we spending good money to create resources for the community if we’re going to let them fall into disrepair almost immediately? The greenway is an incredible concept — but if we can’t find a way to maintain what’s already there, then we should probably stop expanding it.

In an interview with Escambia County commissioner Doug Underhill, whose district includes the greenway, Underhill noted the failures of the county.

“We are not investing in security and safety in the ways we should,” said Underhill, referencing the use of the greenway by panhandlers and the safety issues that plague the greenway. “We still live in a county where we have grossly underfunded our police force…we should be ashamed of ourselves for that.”

Jones Swamp and Creek is the showcase of the Escambia County Southwest Greenway in Warrington. The creek feeds Bayou Chico and into Pensacola Bay. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)
Jones Swamp and Creek is the showcase of the Escambia County Southwest Greenway in Warrington. The creek feeds Bayou Chico and into Pensacola Bay. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Underhill says there is a “technology-enabled answer” in solving the security issues on the greenway, including installing webcams to monitor trail conditions. We support such innovative solutions, along with ensuring the county and sheriff’s office gives higher priority of the greenway in its patrol of the Warrington community.

Underhill, and other Warrington citizens, have also called for the formation of a “Friends of Jones Swamp” volunteer citizen group to aid the county in periodic cleanup of the greenway, educating visitors and raising funds for specific park projects. More than 80 such groups exist around the state.

Across the country, recreational facilities like the Southwest Greenway have been proven time and time again to attract creative-class industries, including technology, and promote private investment in the communities where they are built. With the beautiful natural resources that surround us here in Pensacola, we should be in the vanguard of such efforts. Additionally, the greenway would be a great opportunity for groups such as Visit Pensacola to promote to the millions of people who visit Pensacola annually.

Our suggestion to the county is this: do what citizens pay you to do. One of local government’s most basic jobs is to fund and maintain public infrastructure. Just as we wouldn’t build a new bridge over Pensacola Bay without ensuring it’s maintained or let our public beaches become filled with litter, we shouldn’t let the greenway fall into disrepair just because it’s outside downtown or away from our pristine beaches.