Fate of Community Maritime Park once again at center of Pensacola politics

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal
  • This Thursday, the council will decide whether to approve a six-month extension of lease options for three development groups from the city, which are set to expire this month.
  • Silver Hills is proposing to build between 375 and 450 apartments, 10,000 square feet of retail space and a 1,050-car parking garage on parcels 4 and 5 at Community Maritime Park.
  • Members of the City Council have raised objections to the financial details of the first lease up for consideration with Silver Hills and Edwards Communities Development Companies.

Pensacola city politics are once again orbiting Community Maritime Park as the current plan to develop the park has become the center of gravity at City Hall.

The issue reached critical mass last month when the City Council rejected a contract with real estate broker Andrew Rothfeder to negotiate a lease with three potential developers to build out the West Main Master Plan at the park. Despite the rejection, Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson moved forward with signing a contract with Rothfeder that didn't need council approval.

The City Council likely will be debating and taking votes on aspects of the complex land deal to develop the remaining seven parcels at the park under the West Main Master Plan at nearly every meeting between Thursday and the end of April.

This Thursday, the council will decide whether to approve a six-month extension of lease options for three development groups from the city, which are set to expire this month.

Combined, the three development groups are paying the city slightly more than $7,500 a month for the lease option. The lease option isn't a lease agreement, but rather gives a company the exclusive right to negotiate a lease with the city. If the option was allowed to expire at the end of the month, the three companies would no longer hold the exclusive right to lease the properties.

This 2005 conceptual rendering by Urban Design Associates shows what the earliest vision was for the Community Maritime Park.

Members of the City Council have raised objections to the financial details of the first lease up for consideration with Silver Hills and Edwards Communities Development Companies.

Silver Hills is proposing to build between 375 and 450 apartments, 10,000 square feet of retail space and a 1,050-car parking garage on parcels 4 and 5 at Community Maritime Park.

Under the proposal, the city would grant a 99-year lease to Silver Hills in exchange for the developers building a $19 million parking garage, which is $10 million more than needed for their development. The city would count the extra $10 million of value in the garage as a payment for the lease.

Under the deal, the City Council would have to create a new Community Redevelopment Agency program that would grant the development a tax incentive that would essentially cut the property taxes in half for the first 10 years of the 99-year lease. Unlike previous tax breaks — which are known as EDATES and require both city and county approval — the CRA program would be completely managed by the city and would be open to any developer proposing to build at Community Maritime Park as long as they met the requirements set by the CRA.

The mayor said Monday that getting the Silver Hills' lease inked was the key for any further development at Community Maritime Park because the parking garage included in the project would serve the entire area. Robinson recalled the long history of the development of the park and the many public plans that have never come to fruition.

"People say, well we were promised this and it didn't happen," Robinson said. "Well, it didn't happen because you didn't put in all the infrastructure. We didn't build the infrastructure, because we only get $46 million to get started on it. So the most important part of that is there is the infrastructure of the parking facility. The other properties won't happen without that."

Community Maritime Park history stretches back decades

Pensacola leaders and developers wanting to reshape the city's waterfront have long eyed the property that is now called Community Maritime Park, even back when it was still an industrial property owned by Chevron. Chevron ended its storage operations on the property in 1985 and sold the property to real estate development company Trillium Corp. in 1992.

According to News Journal archives, Trillium bought the property and planned to build waterfront homes, retail shops and a marina. But the company was unable to finance the project, and by 1998, it abandoned the idea and sold the property to a holding company.

The name Trillium stuck with the property as Pensacola leaders began an effort to purchase the land in the hopes of turning it into a city park and a potential location for a new Bayfront Auditorium. The city eventually bought the property in 2000 for $3.6 million.

For the rest of the decade, development of the property became one of the largest and most contentious issues at the center of Pensacola city politics.

Initially, city leaders hired consultants to develop the property as a festival park at a cost of $40 million, but the idea ran into vocal opposition from the community. Opponents forced a referendum on the festival park idea in 2003, and voters shot down the project.

Studer Properties expects to bring proposals to the city for vacant parcels at Community Maritime Park in July.

Meanwhile, retired Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman had started a campaign to build a maritime museum in Pensacola, and Pensacola businessman Quint Studer was looking for a downtown location for his independent baseball team, then called the Pensacola Pelicans.

Hurricane Ivan made landfall near Pensacola in 2004 and devastated the city, and in a meeting about how to rebuild, then-Mayor John Fogg and City Manager Tom Bonfield met with other business leaders and reportedly suggested approaching Fetterman and Studer about having the Trillium property serve as the location for the museum and baseball stadium.

Community Maritime Park is born in aftermath of Hurricane Ivan

The concept of the Community Maritime Park was born.

Studer and Fetterman agreed to the idea, and the Community Maritime Park Associates was formed to promote the park. The first drawings of the park look much like the current vision of the park under the West Main Master Plan because the planners who drafted the West Main Master Plan in 2019 relied on the first drawing from 2005 as a starting point.

The City Council endorsed the concept of Community Maritime Park in 2005, but those opposed to the festival park idea in 2003 again rallied to challenge the idea through a city-wide referendum.

Voters approved the Community Maritime Park idea in 2006, and the city formed the Community Maritime Park Association as a nonprofit board to oversee the construction of the park and take advantage of federal tax credits.

The News Journal ran a headline in its Jan. 21, 2007, edition that declared "Full build-out of park expected within 5 years." But by 2011, Editor Emeritus J. Earle Bowden wrote in a column that the park "has been more disagreement than a reward for the city."

Construction of the baseball stadium moved forward, but other projects at the park stalled.

Fetterman, who had tirelessly promoted the museum and park, died in 2005, but the University of West Florida took up the idea of the maritime museum at the park.

However, negotiations between the city and the university could never decide on the final location of the museum. The fallout from the 2008 recession prevented the university from raising the almost $35 million needed for the museum, and in 2011, UWF gave up the idea of creating the museum. Private efforts continued for a short while to raise money, but nothing ever came of it.

'Old Stinky' emerges as hurdle to development

One of the biggest hurdles to develop the property was the so-called "Old Stinky" sewage treatment plant located across West Main Street from the park. After Hurricane Ivan, Emerald Coast Utilities Authority and the city of Pensacola funded a more than $300 million project to relocate the sewage treatment plant.

A new sewage treatment plant located 15 miles to the north replaced the downtown plant. In 2015, Studer bought the 19-acre property from ECUA.

Meanwhile, the city and CMPA attempted to attract other developers to the site — including other UWF projects and a new location for the YMCA —  but all of the deals unraveled before they could be approved.

Different views of what the Silver Hills development would look like are shown in this image from the developer.

\When the federal tax credits expired in 2017, only the baseball stadium, two office buildings and a restaurant had been built on the developable parcels at the park. The city dissolved the CMPA and took over direct management of the park.

In 2018, then-Mayor Ashton Hayward approached Studer and asked him to develop a plan to lease the remaining parcels at the park.

Studer purchased a lease option for all of the undeveloped parcels and agreed to pay for the plan. He hired nationally renowned planners Jeff Speck and the DPZ firm to develop the West Main Master Plan, which tied together a unified plan between Community Maritime Park, Bruce Beach and the 19-acre former ECUA property.

The planners held multiple public input sessions and incorporated previous plans for the park and market studies to develop a plan to attract developers to the city.

In 2019, the council unanimously approved the plan, and last year Studer brought in three development groups — vetted through a committee of various stakeholders — and proposed they take over his lease option. The council agreed and the city began negotiations with the three groups, including the critical Silver Hills proposal.

With the lease options now held by the three groups, Studer's only role is deciding what will become of his 19-acre property that is part of the West Main Master Plan. The lease for the Blue Wahoos baseball team is also set to expire this year and must be renewed by the City Council.

New council changes dynamic 

Since the approval of the three development groups last year, the City Council gained four new council members. The rejection of Rothfeder's contract in February marked a new phase between the council and Robinson, who, since he was elected in 2018, has been largely able to get almost anything he proposed through the council.

When it comes to Community Maritime Park, Robinson's approach to the council so far has been largely "take it or leave it." He said at his weekly press conference Monday that it was up to the City Council if they want to keep the lease discussions alive.

"The extensions (of the lease option) are good," Robinson said. "They allow us to keep having a discussion. I mean, obviously, it's a signal from council that they want to keep having discussions. If council decides they don't want to do any more discussion, maybe they'll cancel it out. I mean, it's up to council."

An uphill battle:Proposed lease that is 'key' to building out Community Maritime Park faces uphill battle

Contract signed:Mayor gets Community Maritime Park broker contract signed after council's rejection

Last week, the four living former mayors of Pensacola — Hayward, Fogg, Mike Wiggins and Jerry Maygarden — wrote a News Journal guestview calling on the city to move ahead with the current proposal for the Community Maritime Park.

Wiggins told the News Journal this week that he felt it was important to make the public statement of support for the current plan.

"It was always planned to develop those parcels, and to have a parking garage included in the plan," Wiggins said. "To me (the current plan) is an excellent way to proceed."

Wiggins said the idea of Community Maritime Park was always to encourage redevelopment on the west side of downtown and bring more funds into the CRA.

"Well, both of those have happened, contrary to some of the naysayers," Wiggins said.

Not everyone on the council cared for the statement from the former mayors. Councilwoman Teniadé Broughton released a letter on her Facebook page in response, saying she was "not surprised to be lectured by four former mayors who, for decades, promoted the disparity that the City Council is now tasked to resolve."

Broughton blasted the city for subsidizing multi-million dollar investments while some parts of the city have "gone without essentials like safe, well-lit streets." She noted she wanted to see the project developed and said no one on the council wants to see Community Maritime Park languish.

"…Creating a false narrative that we oppose the park is simply tiresome propaganda," Broughton said in her letter. "Voters have determined they want to see the park developed in a way that benefits our community and moves Pensacola forward."

Broughton, who was elected to the council in November, told the News Journal in an interview that she wants any project to include stronger minority and women-owned business participation guarantees and she wants those guarantees to continue past the construction phase of the project. She also wants any jobs created from the project to be open to residents of the nearby Tanyard neighborhood.

"The main thing for me in this project is how can we go from a project that's transactional to a project that is transformative for the community," Broughton said.

Councilwoman Jennifer Brahier, who has raised the most questions about the project, told the News Journal last week that she believes the city negotiated as if it was in a weaker position.

"We're bargaining as if we don't have prime waterfront property," said Brahier, who also was elected in November. "We're acting like we’re coming from behind."

Sherri Myers, the longest-serving current council member with a decade of service, said she's long been a supporter of the project but hesitates on the finances.

"I think there are a lot of ways to achieve what we're trying to achieve," Myers said. "I support the project, and I believe we can work out the financing. I generally don't like tax incentives, but I can't say I’m against something when I don’t know what it is."

Council President Jared Moore said it's tough to be a council member not in the room negotiating, as that is the mayor's job and not the council's under the city charter.

"At the end of the day, with the terms that are set forward, are we better off to proceed under those terms — however much we like them, love them, hate them, dislike them, feel we could have done better — are we better off to move forward under the terms and see this development materialized?" Moore said. "Or are the terms so bad, that we're better off to leave these parcels undeveloped?"

Moore said he believes the current proposal brings benefits that outweigh the tradeoffs.

"I just think it's an incredible opportunity for the community," Moore said.

News Journal reporter Emma Kennedy contributed to this report.

Jim Little can be reached at jwlittle@pnj.com and 850-208-9827.