Pensacola Chamber backs downtown panhandling ban

As Pensacola City Council members prepare to vote Thursday evening on a controversial ban on downtown panhandling, the city’s leading business group has voiced its support for the proposed ordinance.

“The Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce exists to support the businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs who make up the backbone of our community,” the group said in a statement directed at council members. “Protecting the ability of these businesses to attract customers, create jobs, and add value to the Pensacola area is critically important to our future as a city and a region. That’s why tonight, on behalf of our over 1,200 member businesses, we stand in support of the panhandling ordinance before you.”

Pensacola city officials say panhandlers are adversely impacting downtown tourism and economic development. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

The legislation would establish a “Downtown Visitors’ District,” encompassing the area south of Wright Street within two blocks on either side of Palafox Street. Within those boundaries, it would be illegal for anyone to solicit donations, either verbally or through use of a sign. As currently drafted, that would include street performers and charities, though officials have discussed changes to create a permitting process for street performers.

“The Chamber acknowledges that a number of those who panhandle downtown are veterans who have served our nation and deserve our support,” the statement added. “Last year’s Leadership Pensacola class project, A Better Way to Give, highlighted the need to support homeless programs in our community.”

Members of the Chamber’s 2016 leadership program spearheaded the installation of repurposed parking meters throughout downtown Pensacola. Painted by local artists, the meters provide those looking to support the homeless with an alternative to giving their money to panhandlers. Chamber officials weren’t able to say Thursday how much money the meters have collected.

“But for tonight’s vote, the Chamber believes this proposal is a common-sense way to enhance the business environment in our thriving downtown area, as well as create a safer and more welcoming place for hundreds of new residents to live, and thousands of tourists to visit.” the Chamber wrote. “We urge you to vote yes on this proposal.”

The Downtown Improvement Board, the agency which oversees much of the downtown area, came out in support of the ordinance earlier this week.

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward puts change in one of the “Better Way to Give” meters installed at Plaza de Luna. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

Opponents, however, have said that the proposed ordinance as anti-homeless and possibly unconstitutional.

“This is another attempt of the Pensacola City Council to wield its enforcement powers to target poor and homeless persons for discriminatory and fundamentally unfair treatment,” said Sara Latshaw, North Florida Director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Requests for donations, whether made by an organized charity or the humblest of beggars, constitute expression protected by the First Amendment. The City is on constitutionally shaky ground banning solicitation in the entire downtown area.”

Council members will take up the first of two votes on the ordinance at Thursday evening’s city council meeting. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. on the first floor of City Hall, located at 222 West Main Street in downtown Pensacola.