Welcome (Back) Home
In many ways, Pensacola in 2019 is a place that someone in the year 2009 wouldn’t recognize.
Where there used to be closed-down shops and dingy window displays, there are now successful restaurants, busy bars, cozy boutiques and a thriving entrepreneurial scene that many didn’t see coming.
But even in the face of such progress, one question we continue to ask is have we managed to turn around the long-standing trend of Pensacola’s best and brightest hightailing it for bigger and better cities as soon as they can? Are we, as a city, retaining or even re-attracting hardworking, young people to the area? And if so, how have their impacts improved this special little city?
When we really started to ask around, we found out the answer to that question to be yes, time and time again, especially in the case of talented locals returning home. From entrepreneurs introducing new trends and flavors to coaches building teams and families, we talked to some native sons and daughters who’ve made their way back to town in recent years. These are just a few of their stories and, in them, lessons for how Pensacola can continue to grow, invest and keep bringing people home.
Sharing the Passion
Clenita Belford has a passion for Pensacola, a passion she is eager to share with potential recruits to the women’s basketball team at Pensacola State College (PSC), where she has served as the head coach since 2014.
“When I recruit [potential team members], it’s not a sales pitch. It’s the truth of what we have here,” Belford told Inweekly.
Belford didn’t always feel as gung-ho about Pensacola, and it took several years in less water-adjacent areas to begin to appreciate what the city had to offer.
“I think it was just a lot of things about the city I kind of took for granted because I’ve always lived here,” said Belford. “I never really went to the beach growing up. It took me having to move away to understand, ‘Wow, we have this in our backyard.’ Fresh seafood is great. When I moved to the Midwest, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t like seafood back home.’ You don’t miss it until you don’t have it.”
Belford left Pensacola in 2005 after completing college at the University of West Florida. Searching for a passion, Belford relocated to Nebraska, then South Alabama, then Kansas, coaching women’s basketball.
It wasn’t until her time in South Alabama that Belford began to keep tabs on what Pensacola had going on.
“When I started coming back home, I started seeing a change—the nightlife was better; people were doing different things for the community, different events,” recalled Belford. “From there, I just started to see a change and started to realize that we have everything we need right here in Pensacola.”
Planning to have a family and drawn to her hometown, Belford scooped up the head coach position at PSC and hasn’t looked back.
Now, newly married with a 6-month-old at home, Belford says she is more hopeful than ever about Pensacola’s future and feels confident about raising a child here.
“One of the reasons I left is I didn’t think there were many opportunities for me here once I graduated, but I don’t feel it’s that way now for kids. I feel like when my daughter graduates from high school, if she decides to go to UWF, I don’t think I would be concerned about her having a career and raising a family here.”
Belford said that one blind spot the city still has though is in the area of diversity.
“[Outside of Pensacola,] I got to meet people from different nationalities. Here in Pensacola, we don’t have as much diversity as other places. I would hope that would change as we continue to grow. I think that’s important,” Belford said.
A Taste of Something New
Power couple and restaurateurs Brooke Parkhurst and James Briscione are an ambitious pair of Pensacola natives—though Parkhurst likes to eagerly remind Briscione that he is, in fact, a “Jersey boy.” He moved to Pensacola from New Jersey when he was 5.
The two are currently in the process of opening restaurant downtown—Angelena’s Ristorante Italiano—which will be the latest addition to the Great Southern Restaurant Group of Pensacola family along with The Fish House, Jackson’s and Five Sisters Blues Cafe.
Like many others, both Parkhurst and Briscione had to move away from Pensacola to learn what they were missing.
Both recall their adolescence in Pensacola as beach-focused, paying no attention to the inert downtown area where Briscione remembers celebrating a couple of New Year’s events and not much else.
“Everything I did was out at the beach,” said Briscione. “There’s nothing that drew me back to downtown as a high schooler. There was no maritime park, no Wahoos.”
“We had very good childhoods here; we had very good memories. [Leaving Pensacola] was about opportunity. It was a great place to grow up, but we didn’t feel that we could grow here,” Parkhurst expanded.
Because the couple was making a name and home for themselves New York City and raising their two children, ages 3 and 11, they had no real intentions of returning to the place they came from.
“It never crossed my mind to come back to Pensacola,” Briscione told Inweekly.
That is until an amazing opportunity arose.
“Last year, when Quint [Studer], Rishy [Studer] and Jean Pierre [N’Dione] approached us, we realized that we are able to grow in ways in Pensacola that we weren’t able to in New York,” said Parkhurst. “Here, there is more stability. That plus the warm welcome we’ve received, the excitement, the interest from chefs … New York was and still is amazing, but you are definitely a number and there’s a shelf life. Here, those don’t so much exist.”
At Angelena’s, Briscione will serve as executive chef, while Parkhurst will serve as marketing and wine director.
Parkhurst and Briscione feel they are going to bring a worldliness to the Pensacola culinary scene, complementing the established array of restaurants with their sophisticated but approachable Italian take on cuisine.
“Through living in New York and being in Italy at least once a year, we have a lot of experiences from our travels and from our work that we are excited to bring here,” Parkhurst told Inweekly.
Returning home to open the restaurant, Briscione and Parkhurst have noticed quite a few positive changes to the city.
“Growing up, I would drive past the sewage holding tanks that are now the Maritime Park,” noted Parkhurst. “[Now there are more ways for] people to sit outside and enjoy the natural beauty of Pensacola.”
“There’s actually a place to go now that’s not the mall or a movie theater. You can go spend an afternoon between the waterfront and the parks and downtown and restaurants, and it’s a beautiful and nice place to be,” Briscione added.
The couple says there are even some comparisons to be made with their beloved NYC.
“We live in Southtowne, and our morning routine is we walk our daughter to school, jog down to Maritime Park with our son, work out while he plays, jog him up to school and then we go to work,” Parkhurst explained. “Coming from New York where we didn’t have a car, most everything we did, we walked.”
“[In the past,] I don’t think anyone would have considered Pensacola a walkable city,” Briscione added. “We’re glad to be back.”
Andrew Maxwell’s memories of Pensacola growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s are primarily of his experiences at Booker T. Washington High School, playing football, lifting weights and running track. Outside of his academic and athletic pursuits, Maxwell said he didn’t pay much attention to the city around him.
“It was kind of hard to have an impression [of Pensacola] because I didn’t know anything else,” Maxwell told Inweekly.
It wasn’t until he moved away, first for college at FAMU and then to pursue a career in corrections, that he began to notice things that Pensacola lacked.
“I left the area to pursue the big city life, just for more experience. At the time, Pensacola didn’t really offer a nightlife for young adults and was very limited for an urban crowd wanting urban attractions.”
Among his peers at university, Maxwell said he felt his small-town upbringing put him at a disadvantage.
“I felt my peers had a lot more exposure and experience with different cultures and things like that because they came from a big city. Pensacola, due to the size, you don’t really have that,” he told Inweekly.
Today, Maxwell serves as the Director of Education at Camelot Academy, an alternative education school where he feels he is “[giving] kids a second chance to give a first impression.”
Having moved back, in part, to raise his 4-year-old son, Maxwell says he values Pensacola for its proximity to his family and his roots.
“There’s nothing like being able to see your son going to the school you went to,” Maxwell said.
“Looking from the scope—from an 18-year-old to a 35-year-old—I know what’s important to me has changed,” reflected Maxwell. “I do think Pensacola has its issues and sometimes has a small-town mentality. At the same time, there are some special things about Pensacola. We know the importance of trying to raise a village.”
Planning for Success
Emily Ley is a Pensacola native who always “planned” to come home—a plan that she no doubt wrote down in one of her Simplified® planners.
Ley and her successful brand of day planners and paper goods marketed toward women can be found just about anywhere, including Target during a recent collaboration.
Ley was born and raised in Pensacola. She served as the executive director of Ballet Pensacola and worked for Covenant Hospice before moving to be with her husband in Tampa.
Now, with three young children in tow, Ley and her husband were eager to move back to be surrounded by family and build their dream home a decade after they left.
“We watched [Pensacola’s] growth from afar for 10 years and finally got the chance to get back home,” Said Ley. “We have three small children and lots of family here, so we were thrilled to get back to the area.”
Ley says one of her favorite aspects of the growing Pensacola is the support of entrepreneurs.
“Entrepreneurs are being supported so well. I have been excited to be part of EntreCon twice now. We love watching what’s popping up in the area and stopping in to support our local friends doing big things. Pensacola is a city with so much heart. We really wanted to be part of that.”
In the future, Ley says she hopes to see more investments in children and the arts.
“I hope to continue to see Pensacola dig into what makes our area unique and special. I am especially excited about the early childhood initiatives happening as well as the blossoming arts community,” Ley told Inweekly.
According to Ley, another generation of Pensacola lifers are already in the making in the form of her children, who might not have been born here but seem content to remain.
“Our daughter is convinced she’s going to build a house in our backyard and live here forever,” joked Ley. “We have no problem with that!”
A New Rhythm
Claire Campbell had it all—living in New York City and devoting her life to a passion for film making, working on sets and producing projects. After film school, Campbell embraced the hustle and bustle of city life and felt her most accomplished when she was able to see a project through from beginning to end.
In her rare moments of leisure, Campbell was drawn to indoor rhythmic cycling, which pairs music and nightclub-like lighting for an intense, fast-paced workout.
“A joke we had in New York, rather than going to drinks or dinner for business or a catch-up, we would work out together,” said Campbell. “Working out is the new going out. The boutique fitness culture became my entertainment. We would spend our money on high-end boutique experiences that made me feel amazing. I was able to build community at these places.”
It was this interest in fitness and indoor rhythmic cycling that eventually led Campbell, a Pensacola native, home.
But when she left Pensacola in 2004, she had no plans to return.
“By the end of high school, I was angsty for a change. I had done some traveling, and I was eager to move away because obviously Pensacola then wasn’t what it is now. Downtown wasn’t thriving like it is today. Aside from the beaches, there just wasn’t much going on.”
But over the decade Campbell spent in NYC, a changing Pensacola was calling her home.
On visits during holidays, Claire would passively observe the changes to the city—the new restaurants, the music venues, the cultural events popping up on the weekends.
“While I loved my job and my life, I was looking for a major change. I wanted to be fulfilled in other ways.” Campbell reflected.
“It wasn’t until I was on Palafox somewhere and I thought to myself, ‘Pensacola needs an indoor cycling studio like I have in New York,’” recalled Campbell. “Over the next few months, I let it marinate. Finally, I took a weekend in New York and put together a business plan. When I was investigating it with my parents, that’s when it felt real to me. We happened upon a couple of realistic options, and one day I just committed. I was like, ‘I have to quit my job and pack up my apartment.’ [It was] one of the scariest things I had done, leaving the life I knew and had spent so much time building. But I put a plan to action, and here we are.”
That plan turned into Ride Society.
Since opening late last year, Campbell and her team have introduced Pensacola to something new and become a staple in many people’s fitness routines.
One thing is very clear when talking to Campbell—she doesn’t take Ride Society’s success or the positive changes around town for granted.
“[The change] is a very real thing. I have so many friends who have returned home because of the breath of fresh air that’s been brought to the city. It’s hard to put my finger on it,” she told Inweekly.
Whatever it is, Campbell says she is eager to see more of it.
“We have a special niche here on the Gulf. Without losing that special sauce we have, it would be awesome to see it grow. I’d love to see a bit more skyline. I can’t wait to see what it looks like in 10 years,” she said optimistically.