Pensacola City Council rejects moving forward with Maritime Park conference center plan

Emma Kennedy
Pensacola News Journal

The Pensacola City Council on Thursday night narrowly voted to accept the mayor's recommendation to abandon negotiations with design firm Carson Lovell to develop a design for the empty lots at Community Maritime Park.

After more than an hour of back-and-forth during which some council members accused city staff of not properly negotiating the terms of the agreement with Carson Lovell, the council ultimately voted 4-3 to accept the mayor's rejection.

Council members Jared Moore, Teniadé Broughton, Delarian Wiggins and Casey Jones voted to reject the idea.

Robinson weighs in:Pensacolamayor recommends rejecting Maritime Park conference center proposal

Carson Lovell moves forward:Council chooses conference center for Maritime Park against mayor's recommendation

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Mayor Grover Robinson said if the council chose to reject the memorandum of understanding with Carson Lovell, the negotiations would move on to the next candidate, which is design firm Inspired Communities.

The council narrowly voted to select Carson Lovell's proposal from three options in July, opting for the firm's 65,000-square-foot convention center, a 1,000-space parking garage and 80 residential units on two parcels at Maritime Park.

Robinson had instead pushed for the council to approve Inspired Communities, a firm that had presented an "18-hour district" model of commerce, retail and high-density residential on those two lots.

A sketch shows what a convention center at Community Maritime Park could look like when viewed from the south in a proposal from the Carson Lovell Company.

Carson Lovell's project description in its most recent MOU was vague and included a potential combination of a parking garage, conference/convention/banquet/museum facility, multifamily rental dwellings and retail/entertainment space.

However, Carson Lovell representative Greg Darden said at the City Council meeting Thursday night that details such as the design for the parcel layout and potential funding options like a Triumph Gulf Coast grant would come in the next phase, as the firm has been restricted from doing much of its due diligence without a signed MOU from the city.

"We think we've got some creative ideas, but again, we can't investigate these ideas before we have some kind of document that legalizes these activities," Darden said.

Mayor recommends council reject agreement with Carson Lovell

Robinson last week recommended the City Council reject the agreement that would take development of Community Maritime Park to the next level with Carson Lovell and launch a feasibility study.

Robinson said the city can't afford the proposal as it doesn't have enough revenue generation and it would require the city pay the construction cost upfront.

He referenced other downtown infrastructure projects the city has funded, including Blue Wahoos Stadium, public greenspace, an outdoor amphitheater, a playground and a soon-to-be developed day-use marina, and said that with interest from other private developers who would pay the upfront cost for developing lots 4 and 5, there isn't a need for the city to invest.

At Thursday night's meeting, council members Ann Hill and Jennifer Brahier expressed concern that the mayor and Andrew Rothfeder, who has been involved in the Community Maritime Park negotiations, hadn't completed the negotiations effectively because the mayor had not wanted the Carson Lovell option from the beginning.

"This city has done almost everything it can do to trash your plan, trash your ideas and not give you the very basic thing you need to get started and I apologize. It's very unprofessional," Hill said to Darden.

Public split on Carson Lovell proposal

The public was split in its few comments on whether to allow Carson Lovell to carry out its due diligence, which would have continued to the next phase of creating an initial cost analysis and initial timeline.

Terry Horne, executive director of CivicCon and the Center for Public Engagement, sided with the mayor, saying he didn't think it was doing right by the taxpayers to invest so much without return.

"I'm worried if we go make another large investment that is millions of public dollars in addition to public dollars already invested, the public won't get the return it deserves," he said. CivicCon is a partnership between the News Journal and Studer Community Institute.

Community Maritime Park has a long history spanning back to 2006 when a referendum called for improving damaged soil on the site, which was a former treatment plant, and rebuilding it for public use.

History of the project:Fate of Community Maritime Park once again at center of Pensacola politics

Studer Properties in 2019 commissioned planning experts who ultimately created the West Main Master Plan, and the city wrote the requirements of that plan into the city's land development code later that year.

Last year, three development groups — Silver Hills, Valencia Hotel Group and Inspired Communities — bought lease options from Studer Properties with the approval of the City Council, paying a monthly fee to retain exclusive rights to negotiate development on the parcels.

Silver Hills walked away from its lease option for parcels 4 and 5 in March after tense negotiations, which have left those two parcels' option for the current Carson Lovell negotiations.

Neither the council members nor the mayor expressly outlined the next steps for the Community Maritime Park plan, but in the council's July ranking, Inspired Communities was the runner-up to Carson Lovell. 

Emma Kennedy can be reached at ekennedy@pnj.com or 850-480-6979.