$2-million Bone of Contention Buried

By Jeremy Morrison

The moment was as awkward as it was climactic. Toward the end of a special meeting of the Community Maritime Park Associates, Rishy Studer walked quietly to the front of the room.

“If that’s a big check,” CMPA Chairman Collier Merrill stood to greet her, “that comes over here.”

The two embraced, as Studer handed over $2.25 million. She and her husband — Quint Studer — were at Wednesday’s meeting to clarify that they intended to give $2-plus million in charitable gifts instead of twice that.

“This is one of those moments when we should be celebrating,” Quint Studer said during his address to the board.

Recently, there was some speculation from the CMPA’s quarters that a gift mentioned during a January board meeting and a previous donation stemming from the University of West Florida’s now-defunct maritime museum project were two separate donations totaling over $4 million. The Studers have maintained that the donation referenced over the winter was to come out of the UWF refund.

“You can’t make the same contribution twice,” CMPA attorney Ed Fleming — who did not defend his position publicly Wednesday — said last week.

The controversy seems to hinge on a word: “additional.” At the end of January, attorney Bob Hart relayed to the board that the Studers would be giving an “additional” $2,050,000. The Studers argue that the donation was “additional” to the money the CMPA already had, while Fleming said he — and, he believed, the entire CMPA board — took it to mean the Studers were making a new and totally separate donation.

“I wouldn’t know why they would have thought anything else,” Fleming said.

No one lined up behind that argument on Wednesday. CMPA board member Jim Reeves came the closest.

“If we said, ‘no, there were really two gifts,’ where would we be?” Reeves asked, still sipping on the first of what would become a trio of Tab sodas. “I’m trying to get to the least bad option.”

“You know,” Chairman Merrill responded, “I think there’s the possibility of a lawsuit. I think there’s a possibility we won’t have a ball team.”

Earlier, Quint Studer — co-owner of the double AA baseball team slated to play at the new park, but not yet officially obligated to relocate to town — spoke at length about his decision to live in Pensacola and contribute to this community. He spoke of the pain caused his wife by the hurtful posts by anonymous bloggers which have left her wondering if Pensacola was truly to be their home, and his children increasingly troubled by the pushback from their father’s public forays.

The team owner and CEO and founder of Studer Group talked about the pressure to somehow come up with another $2 million that the CMPA staff and attorney had said earlier was owed. “I would have been more comfortable if I could try to find the money,” Studer said, going on to say the stresses involved with the park made him long to see his out-of-town granddaughter. “It’d be nice to get a hug from somebody who doesn’t have a dog in the hunt.”

Studer also talked about his love of 1960s television. He is a fan of” Leave it to Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” He relayed a particular episode of Andy Griffith — a black-and-white parable — in which a well-meaning stranger wanders into town and gets unfairly scrutinized for trying to do good and be considered a local.

“I just want to live in Mayberry,” said Studer.

He also referenced his battle with alcohol addiction. He tied honesty — a key tenant in his recovery— to his intent in regards to the park donation. Studer also cited his addiction in moving forward.

“I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he said after the meeting, “I can’t afford resentments.”

The CMPA board seemed more than ready to move forward as well. Chairman Merrill said the misunderstanding was based on “very silly terms.” Members of the board agreed.

“If we take more than a couple more minutes on this issue, then shame on us for wasting time,” said board member Juanita Scott halfway through the meeting.

In the end, the board voted to accept a gift agreement stipulating that the Studers have fulfilled their charitable requirements.

“I don’t regret that I live in Pensacola and I hope that you don’t regret that I live here, either,” Studer had said earlier in the meeting, to a standing ovation from the gallery.