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Wednesday April 16th 2014

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The YMCA, the CMPA and the ‘Big Mistake’

After hours of debate yesterday, the Community Maritime Park Associates board decided to redirect a proposed YMCA away from  a waterfront space at the park.

“I think we have made a big mistake doing what we did here,” CMPA Chairman Collier Merrill said.

Proponents of a new downtown Y had hoped to relocate to parcel 8 at the Community Maritime Park, which fronts Pensacola Bay. The CMPA board voted 6-4 to instead offer up parcels five or six—neither of which are waterfront—to the Y.

“We have made a counter offer to them, is what we’ve done,” said Fred Gunther, who made the motion. “They’ve made an offer to us, we’ve made a counter offer.”

Representatives of the YMCA were not pleased with the decision.

“I guarantee you, somebody from out of town wouldn’t be sitting at the table still,” said YMCA attorney John Daniel.

The CMPA’s YMCA decision comes after weeks of debate over the proposed project, which has substantial financial support from the community, most notably from Blue Wahoos owner Quint Studer. Last week, the Pensacola City Council—after much discussion—approved the Y’s proposed lease, in concept, and left the details to the CMPA.

Yesterday’s decision also follows a debate over process. Throughout city council discussions, questions were raised over how the YMCA lease came to be. Some members maintained that the lease should have first traversed the CMPA board before being brought before council.

Merrill told his board last night that he thought the CMPA’s role was to make property in the park available, and that the city council was charged with approving or disapproving a proposed lease. Others have maintained that the CMPA is to negotiate leases prior to council weighing in.

“I was hoping you had to usurp this board, personally,” Merrill said at the opening of yesterday’s meeting. “But, we are where we are right now.”

The YMCA team began private discussions in December with Merrill and Mayor Ashton Hayward. They then worked through several lease drafts with City Attorney Jim Messer before bringing the matter to the city council.

Some council members took issue with the private meetings and redirected the issue to the CMPA board. Prior to sending the lease to the CMPA, council approved the proposal  “in concept,” and requested that the park board work out the lease details.

YMCA representatives have maintained that they were following the path suggested by city officials. On that front, YMCA Board President Steve Williams opened the CMPA meeting with an apology.

“I ask for your forgiveness for any missteps we have taken and I offer you our sincerest apology,” he told the CMPA board.

Prior to discussing the YMCA prospects, Merrill cautioned his board. He reminded them that city council had already approved the lease, in concept.

“Anybody can ask any questions they want to ask and we can talk about whatever we want to talk about,” the chairman said, “but let’s keep in mind what we’ve been tasked to by the city.”

After Gunther made his motion, Merrill again stressed the city directive. He read from the city council’s motion, which requested the CMPA to tend to lease details.

“As chairman, this is what I’ve been sent, this is what I’ve got,” Merrill said.

Gunther argued that his motion—offering up parcels 5 and 6, instead of 8—was within the bounds of council’s directive, and also contended that the CMPA board was not beholden to the council. He said he made his motion to reflect concerns raised by the CMPA’s Audit and Operations Committee, of which he is a member.

“My particular reason is that the parcel was bigger than they needed and they didn’t need the prime piece of waterfront property,” Gunther said, also requesting that parking concerns, as well as other issues, be addressed in any lease negotiations.

Following the 6-4 vote, there was some confusion about the chances of parcel 8 being placed back on the table during lease negotiations. It is unclear if the YMCA is interested in pursuing the project at the park if the waterfront parcel is not on the table.

“Yes, we’ll negotiate any of’em—5, 6, 7—but not if 8’s not in the mix, too,” said Daniel. “We’re happy to negotiate, but you can’t cherry pick and choose what you want to negotiate about.”