On Friday, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward was a guest on News Talk 1370 WCOA’s “Good Morning Gulf Coast” with Don Parker and Jim Sanborn. The mayor talked about CBRE, his vision for the Community Maritime Park, Pensacola International Airport and Port of Pensacola.
The mayor said the departure of long-time CMPA Executive Director Ed Spears was a mutual agreement. He said that he is still searching for a replacement for former Airport Director Greg Donovan, who left the city last summer.
He also mentioned how his team keeps him informed on what’s happening at the airport, and that his administration is being proactive, not reactive.
WCOA: Let’s get to some of the issues at hand here. First may I ask you, Ed Spears, who was the CMPA executive director, did he resign or was he fired from his position?
Ashton: I think it was a mutual agreement where we both decided to go our separate ways, and the CMPA, it’s a challenging issue. I think Don and yourself, Jim, have explained it well on the radio for the last six years, but there’s some exciting things going there. I think what’s important now for the citizens is we do have a very first class real estate company partner with local companies that was tasked by the CMPA board of directors to bring in potential clients that can deliver a first class project to the city.
We’re dealing with the board, a lot of people have input, either volunteers that do a good job, but when you bring in a company like that, we need to make decisions, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not saying whether we’re going to do this deal or not do this deal, but let’s give it a fair shake. Let’s do our diligence. Let’s be positive in that way which we’re speaking with other people about Pensacola, and let’s look for a win-win that makes sense for the community and the citizens.
WCOA: Can you explain what the success fee is when it comes to what’s going on with this?
Ashton: I think that’s a wonderful point, Don. Everybody’s guy gets paid, no one’s working for free. I know companies have been down here and meeting with people, they’ve got expenses. I think what was confusing, I think, some of the folks thought that the city was paying that succession fee, the developer, which again is just a potential developer who was paying a fee. The taxpayers weren’t paying a fee which is a huge win for the city, so that’s a very positive thing. You’re right, Don, people got to get paid but let’s make sure it’s in the realm of what we can swallow, so to speak.
WCOA: Mayor, Jim here, let me ask you the Miami developer wants to put in a hotel and maybe some apartments and stuff like that–was that the original vision of a community maritime park for you?
Ashton: Obviously I think for all of us, we were all praying that the market would come back after 2008. Obviously seven years later, we are coming out of this recession, and obviously commerce is great, we’re out of it, the market is turning, things are happening. I think what’s happened in the last four and a half years in Pensacola has been a transformation and a renaissance. The folks from Biloxi coming over here three years ago saying, “Should we build a stadium? Should we do this?” Now they’re doing it over there.
People from the outside are seeing all the success we’re having, so I think, of course, we’d like to see more people downtown, more visitors visiting all of our culture and our history–going to a restaurant, buying in our retail, so of course we’d like to have more retail, more hotels and more people coming to visit Pensacola, so I think that was all of our vision. I think what the voters voted for in the ballot was obviously make use of residential and a hotel. Now as the market comes back, we got to predicate what can happen and what not can happen. I think we’re in a really good place to reassure the future the way we want it.
WCOA: Mayor, let me ask you, what would have been your vision? Forget the CMPA. You got the land down there, what would you personally have liked to have seen to support our citizens with that beautiful property right there on the waterfront?
Ashton: I think the most important thing is that the public has access to the water. I think what I’m fortunate to see everyday, Jim, when I’m downtown, and Don, I see so many people now exercising after 5:00, every different generation, every socioeconomic class. It’s fantastic to see people getting on the water.
I think when I ran for office in 2010, I always talked about urbanism and density, and that urban core was the lifeblood of the city of Pensacola being successful. When your downtown thrives, your city thrive, and getting people down there. Our vision was getting people walking, being downtown, riding bikes, obviously getting more people moving into the city. The city is only 39 square miles. Most of our neighborhoods are built out. You’re seeing a lot of things in East Hill turn over where people are knocking down houses, buying up empty lots, so living downtown is such a great component.
I think the future of cities across America are going that way where people are coming out of the rural areas and living in the urban areas. I think you’ll see a lot of people slowly coming out of the county, coming into the city which is a very positive thing. People living downtown, living on the waterfront as it makes sense, obviously that property is going to have residential units.
There’s another residential project going on with Palafox, south Palafox, that’s looking to the west over the water, so these are such great things that are going on. I think we’re becoming one of the destination cities to live in Florida, and I think you’ll see that in the next decade when south Florida is so filled. I was just down there recently, and it’s very busy, but the northwest Florida is still the diamond in the rough, if you will, Pensacola drives that.
WCOA: Mayor, I want to ask you when might we see an airport director at our airport? We’ve been without one for a while.
Ashton: That’s a great question, Jim. We’ve been searching long and hard, if you will. We’ve had a couple of good candidates, but not exactly who I would like to see. The airport’s doing great, the concessions are moving forward in a very positive light. We are featured in TRAVEL+LEISURE Magazine, which was very cool, I believe, this month or last month my team told me. We want to find the right person. The airport’s doing so well, but you want to make sure you have a person that the individual that you want out there, so everyday I’m looking for the right person, Jim.
WCOA: Since we’re at the airport, let’s talk about the Silver Airlines, a new carrier for our airport.
Ashton: That’s big. Silver Airways has really been pushing since they’ve come online. Yesterday, when we did a little press release for the first inaugural flight to Jacksonville, I talked about how large our state is, and some of these people don’t understand that, but having these flights, now obviously they fly to Tampa and Orlando, and taking up Jacksonville is big.
Obviously what the military presence in Jacksonville and Pensacola, you have a lot of military traffic, and you have a lot of healthcare traffic, so there was a demand for that, and it’s exciting stuff. We’re getting as many carriers as we can get to have a great co-partnership with JetBlue, if you go on jetblue.com, you can book flights for Silver. It’s a really unique win for us, and so things are on the upside.
WCOA: VT Mobile Aerospace, that’s supposed to be a company developing on the Pensacola airport property. What’s the very latest on that?
Ashton: Yeah, they’re going to build the northeast corner, Jim, for all the listeners out there. Obvious too we have our runaways in the north and south, east and west, they’re going to be on the northeast corner building a hangar. VT-MAE, you’re right, maintenance repair operator based out of Singapore but they have two locations in San Antonio and Mobile, Alabama, 300 jobs. I believe they just shortlisted the bid to build the hangar last week, my team told me, so that’s exciting stuff, and hopefully we can get under construction in the fall of this year, but things are moving forward.
WCOA: All right, let’s talk about the Port of Pensacola, Deepflex, the underwater pipe company. Is it true that the reason that construction has slowed down or has stopped at this time is because of oil prices?
Ashton: I definitely believe that, Jim. I think all your listeners know and they follow the news. The bottom of the oil market as we know fell out, and oil went up yesterday to $50 a barrel, about $50 a barrel, so that is the reason, cash flow. I think all of this is agreeing with what’s going on in the midwest, in Dakota, and with natural gas, and oil and gas is at its all-time low, obviously consumers are benefiting, but it hurts the businesses hard, and Deepflex has the resources no matter the oil price. I think that you’ll see them crank up here sooner than later to finish their project and service the oil companies out in the Gulf. It has been a slowdown. I agree that’s how the markets play it, but we are vulnerable to that.
WCOA: Obviously you don’t have any firm timeline. They probably don’t need it for that matter.
Ashton: I don’t have, “Hey, they’re going to start up April 30th, Don,” but we have been told by the company that they have slowed down. They haven’t completely stopped the project, and they will start back up, and they want to be in Pensacola. They think it’s a terrific area geographically through a business model. I think as you see oil prices bounce back, they’ll crank up.
WCOA: Any other developments at the Port that you want to mention?
Ashton: I think things are going really going good, Don. I think that’s a great question. I think we’ve got an office, we want to really isolate and focus on our strengths in what we’re doing. Amy Miller has done a fabulous job in getting out there and hustling for business. We’re doing a good job in bringing Deepflex in. It was a big win, it is a big win. Things do slow down and change but we got to be able to focus on getting other business, so I think that’s what we’re doing, and Amy is doing a terrific job trying to get out there and get business.
She’s traveling to different conferences and meeting other people, and going around the state. She’s getting ready to go to Cuba on the 16th of April. She’s traveling down there with a group of business folks, so that’s positive to see if there’s any kind of opportunities out there. I think most importantly, Don, and today what we’re doing in the new form of government is being proactive and not reactive because we also have the taxpayers, and we need to generate as much business as we can for Pensacola.
WCOA: All right. Mayor, I got two more questions for you then we’ll let you run. Thank you for your time, by the way. I do want to ask you about the infrastructure in downtown Pensacola. Obviously we’re seeing work done on Ninth Avenue in Scenic Highway, when should those projects be done?
Ashton: Ninth Avenue which is fabulous, and obviously Scenic Highway was going to get done, and the Ninth Avenue, they’re going all the way to Olive Roads. It’s going to take through the end of the month, Jim, but what’s really exciting is to see all these roads being repaved by the state, partnering with the state of Florida on a lot of great projects. Obviously we know the state was a part of our economic development project at the airport, at the port. Looking at those projects can be beneficial with the flooding. Piedmont Road which was Ground Zero for us from the flood in the city limit, we’re focused on that, we’re looking at downtown.
I talked with Secretary Boxold last week on things that maybe they could potentially help us out with in the downtown core. I think all your listeners know we collaborated with the county, and we submitted for a grant to be able to try to get some money out of the federal government that we can do some things. I think you have to hustle, you have to be proactive, and try to go after every dollar.
We’ve been very fortunate with a lot of money we received, but we got to continue doing that, Jim. Infrastructure’s a good thing. I think when you see a lot of traffic now, you know of course I’m going to hear every kind of complaint and yelling it’s so busy downtown. People are like, “Oh my God, there’s so much traffic.” The benefit of that is so many great things are going on. When you do that, you have to repair your infrastructure.
WCOA: Yeah, let me address that just for a second, this is another question. Right there on Main Street by Bartram Park all the way up to Wahoo Stadium, that seems to be extremely congested just because there is so much downtown. How can we get around that?
Ashton: That’s a good question, Jim. I think to be quite honest, I don’t know if you will ever get away from that. We have a two-way traffic, but the rest is rotating down. Baseline is far too quick. DOT, it’s doing a road diet for me, working on that traffic on Bayfront, we’re looking at the landing when you come off the new bridge when that’s going to be built, so there’s a lot of logistics that we are focused on to see how we can eliminate some of the traffic, not eliminate, but find some new routes for the traffic pattern. I don’t know, Jim, if you ever see that because people are coming at little towns where people want to be there, they want to come downtown. If you look at a lot of great city where there’s one way in and one way out, there’s a lot of congestion, but if you’re enjoying yourself, you don’t mind that for a few minutes.
WCOA: Yeah, well exactly. We need to do that. Finally here, and we were talking to Mayor about this. We’re asking the mayor to be part of a town hall that we like to do in late in May, and you said you’d be up for that?
Ashton: I love to do that. You guys do a fabulous job, and I think the more information and talk to your listeners about what we’re doing, it’s very important to communicate with the community, and I always like doing that with you guys, so I’m happy to do it.