By Jesse Farthing
Mayor Ashton Hayward’s proposal to give a 10-year concession contract at the Pensacola International Airport to OHM Concessions was put on hold last night when the City Council moved to postpone the vote after hearing impassioned pleas from the public, urging them to vote to give the contract to local companies instead.
Under OHM’s plan, nationally branded franchises – Chick-fil-A, Einsten Bros. Bagels, Surf City Squeeze and Corona – would open up shop in the airport, but a local group has partnered with Creative Food Group of New York to offer locally branded businesses instead.
The council chamber was packed with Pensacola citizens holding signs reading “Vote Local” during the meeting Thursday. Seventeen people asked to speak to the council on the issue, including owners and several employees of Bagelheads, Varona’s, the Fish House and Pensacola Bay Brewery, who would open up franchises inside of the airport if the contract were given to Creative Food Group.
The constant thread weaving all of the speakers together was the concept of local flavor and the way that local businesses will give back to the community on a much greater scale. The chambers erupted in applause several times as the speakers made their pleas to the council.
“The RFP clearly states ‘local concepts reflective of the city of Pensacola,’” Rob Mackey, owner of Bagelheads, said. “We took that to mean they actually wanted local companies involved. Apparently, what they really wanted was to be the first small airport with a Chick-fil-A.”
“Except on Sunday, of course. You’ll have to bring your own chicken sandwich on that day,” Mackey added after the crowd stopped laughing
Mackey argued that local companies put twice the money into the local economy when compared to national chains and also cited a survey of 500 passengers inside the airport, 75 percent of whom said they preferred local food and beverage options to national chains.
“We have the unique opportunity to bring local foods, local concepts and local owners into our airport, welcoming new people to Pensacola with something they cannot get at home,” Mackey said. “We can provide them with hand-crafted beer, brewed right here. Fresh fish caught right here. Artisan coffees roasted here. Fresh bread and bagels made here. If this is the type of experience you want visitors to your airport to have, our team can make that happen. If you want a glorified mall with airplanes, then you should accept the mayor’s proposal.”
Mackey’s presentation met with loud applause throughout the chambers.
Audrey Young, vice president of Varona’s, made her own speech to the council while fighting through tears.
“The benefit of choosing CFG and its local partners is that we are here, we are part of the community, we have been part of the community,” Young said, choking back tears.
All of the local business owners assured the council that if they were selected, all of the production would be done locally, and they weren’t simply giving their names to Creative Food Group to franchise out – neither inside of the airport nor nationally.
After hearing arguments supporting the local side for over an hour, the council motioned to postpone the vote until the next regular meeting two weeks from now, which will allow the council members to take more time to look over the proposals and consider what they have heard from the community.
The issued will be revisited on Oct. 10.
Editor’s Note: The Airport bidding process doesn’t allow contact between those bidding on a contract and the city council. Plus, the new council rules don’t allow the public to comment at its agenda review meeting –formerly known as committee of the whole. Only city staff and the mayor have had access to city council. Last night was the first time the local group could present their case directly.