Pensacola will have to find a way to pay if it wants a conference center at Maritime Park
Negotiations for a 65,000-square-foot convention center at Pensacola's Community Maritime Park will continue, but how to pay for it remains uncertain following a special City Council workshop Wednesday evening.
Greg Darden, a director with Structured Parking Solutions, made the case to the council as to why their team proposed to build a conference center and laid out the broad outlines of how a proposal would be structured.
Structured Parking Solutions is part of the team put together by the Carson Lovell Company, which is proposing to build a 65,000-square-foot convention center along with an at least 1,000-space parking garage and 80 residential units at Community Maritime Park.
Carson Lovell's proposal won the backing of the majority of the council in July in a sharply divided 4-3 vote over another proposal from Inspired Communities of Florida and EJ Smith Enterprises, which proposed 534 residential units and 115,500 square feet of retail space.
Inspired Communities' proposal received the recommendation of city staff but the council opted to give Carson Lovell's the first shot at negotiating an agreement with the city.
Darden noted that a conference space has long been considered at the Community Maritime Park and was even mentioned as a possible use under the West Main Master Plan. However, it was discussed as part of a privately funded hotel and conference center at a different location than the current two parcels under consideration.
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Darden said their team looked at providing parking for the rest of the Maritime Park as their first goal and then went from there to look at what other public assets could be provided.
"We wanted to create a project that doesn't cannibalize existing businesses or pending projects," Darden said. "We wanted a project that complements existing businesses and complements new businesses. We were hoping to have a project that serves as an economic business catalyst and spurred growth."
Darden said the proposal would be financed with tax-free bonds on the private market but made it clear the city would be the party paying the debt on the bonds.
"You've still got to pay the bondholders back," Darden said. "Let's be very, very clear. There still has to be a revenue stream from somewhere. That revenue stream could be direct fees associated to the use of those facilities, whether it's the convention (center), whether it's parking or whatever. Or it could be a direct injection of cash from the city, or it could be a combination there of."
Darden didn't have estimates of the project's cost, but said those would come as their team continues to do due diligence on the project.
Real estate broker Andrew Rothfeder, who is negotiating on behalf of the city for the properties, told the council his job was to bring the best deal to the city as possible, but he wanted the council to fully understand that this lease will be very different from the previous proposal with developer Silver Hills.
Silver Hills' proposal was similar to the proposal from Inspired Communities, but the deal fell apart after some council members objected to subsidizing the parking garage and Silver Hills opted to walk away rather than pay the lease option fee.
Rothfeder noted that the Silver Hills proposal would have brought the city about $35 million over the course of the project.
"What's being asked is potentially we could have a revenue-neutral project," Rothfeder said. "From there forward, at the cost to build the buildings and operate the buildings, could possibly be revenue-neutral. But I just want to make sure that (the negotiations are) starting from a place of costing the taxpayers $35 million."
After the 4-3 vote in July, the council appeared just as divided.
A mark of that division came at the beginning of the meeting when in an unusual move, Council President Jared Moore was passed over to run the meeting.
At special council meetings and workshops, the council selects a chairperson to run the meeting. Usually, it's a formality and the council president is selected as chair. However, Councilwoman Ann Hill nominated Councilwoman Sherri Myers as chairperson, saying Myers had the most experience and familiarity with the issue.
Moore was one of the council members who voted against the Carson Lovell project in July and has been a public critic of the project since.
The vote to unseat Moore in favor of Myers for the meeting was 5-2, with Moore and Councilman Casey Jones voting against.
Moore said for him to support the proposal, the developers would have to present a plan that not only paid for itself but also would open up the rest of the Maritime Park lots for development to be able to fund the public parts of the park.
"I want it kicking money in the coffers so we can go fix things (at the park)," Moore said.
For her part, Myers said she had supported the Silver Hills project because she thought it was a good deal for the city, but she said it was fair to give the Carson Lovell team time to work out the details of their proposal.
"How do we pay for this, and how do we make it work?" Myers said. "But the bottom line is without the parking garage, the rest of the (Community Maritime Park) development is not going to happen. (The parking garage has) always been the linchpin of getting all the other developments that Councilman Moore said needed to be done."
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.