CMP 101

The blog has grown beyond Northwest Florida. We are approaching a million page views a month. Some of the new readers have been drawn here because of The Daily Beast and my coverage of the BP oil disaster. Others have been attracted by my investigations into the Billings murders.

When I cover local politics, it can be confusing. Politics in Pensacola is a blood sport with most of the wounds inflicted from behind. There are old Pensacola families that have seen their wealth dwindle with each subsequent generation and that have sold off most of their assets. The recent real estate collapse has them hanging on a thread dreading the balloon payments coming due on their notes.

A quarter of the population is functionally illiterate. Disease and other health conditions have been described by health care professionals as being akin to Third World countries -despite having four major hospitals in the county. The vast majority of the births are to unwed mothers, particularly in the African-American community. Escambia County leads the state and the Southeast U.S. in EPA Superfund sites. Poverty per capita ranks at or near the bottom in the state. There is no significant African-American middle class. Domestic violence stats are skyrocketing.

Yes, Pensacola is a historic city that recently celebrated its 450th anniversary. The beaches are beautiful. The people have great hearts.

Yet Pensacola is always looking to reach its potential….always….has been for 450 years.

CMP stands for Community Maritime Park. After Hurricane Ivan in 2004, community leaders tired to figure out how to rebuild the City. They met with leaders from Homestead, Fla. –a south Florida city that had been literally flattened by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Pensacola leaders walked away with two ideas: establishment of a massive volunteer effort tor restore housing (which became Rebuild Northwest Florida) and the construction a public works project that could restore city pride and unify all elements of the city (Community Maritime Park).

The City of Pensacola owned the last large tract of open land in downtown Pensacola on Pensacola Bay. It was across the street from Pensacola City Hall. A year earlier the City had tried to build an auditorium on the property, but a referendum had defeated it.

Before Hurricane Ivan, Ret. Admiral Jack Fetterman, who headed the National Naval Aviation Museum on NAS Pensacola, had approached the City Council about building a maritime museum downtown. Quint Studer, founder of the Studer Group and owner of the Pensacola Pelicans – a minor league baseball team, had begun the site evaluation process for a new stadium. His team was playing on the small field of the University of West Florida. UWF President John Cavanaugh wanted his college to have a bigger presence downtown.

City Manager Tom Bonfield asked the trio to consider being part of a joint venture that would build a Community Maritime Park with a multi-use stadium, maritime museum and UWF conference center with classrooms. The City would provide $40 million from bond financing to build the stadium and conference center, build a public park area for festivals and all the infrastructure. Fetterman would raise privately $20 million for the maritime museum. Studer agreed to build a $12 million office building and the remaining property would be developed for retail, commercial and residential use. A true public-private partnership that created jobs, added to the tax base and revitalized downtown.

A no-brainer, right? Not in Pensacola.

Even though the Pensacola City Council passed the plans, 9-1 (yes, Pensacola has 10 city council members for a city of 53,000), the one dissenting councilman, Marty Donovan, led a group (Save Our City) that had a successful petition drive to force a referendum on the park.

In September 2006, the referendum passed, approving the Community Maritime Park. For the next three years, Pensacola would wrangle with the design criteria, environmental permits, recession/depression and who would be the master developer.

In the fall of 2009, Maritime Park Development Partners had been selected as the master developer. By that time, Jack Fetterman had passed away. Cavanaugh had left to be the chancellor of the Pennsylvania state college system. Tom Bonfield had left to be the city manager of Durham, NC. Marty Donovan had lost his seat on the City Council.

The state budget had tightened. UWF asked to delay both the conference center and, eventually, the maritime museum.

The one constant was Quint Studer, who gave (not just pledged) UWF $2.25 million for the museum with the understanding the state would match the donation (which didn’t happen); signed a 10-year lease for the stadium that he personally guaranteed and further secured with a life insurance policy; signed an agreement to lease, for fair market value, land at the park to build, at his expense, a $12-million office building (the first high-rise office building in downtown Pensacola in over 20 years) and agreed to give the park all profits from his baseball team (agreeing to not pay himself a salary and guaranteeing $250,000 a year for the first five years, if there aren’t any profits).

….only in Pensacola would Donovan and others consider Studer the villain in this scenario.

When the City Council passed the bond financing in Oct. 2009, Donovan started a petition drive to overturn the bonds, which held up the bonds and delayed construction. He failed to get enough signatures to force a referendum. The bonds were sold in record time.

Meanwhile a local bond financing agency offered the City an additional $12 million in New Market Tax Credits -money the City wouldn’t have to repay. The City earmarked the funds to further enhance the stadium, build an Amphitheater and a marina with a breakwater, among other enhancements.

In May 2010, the City accepted that NMTC funds and approved a Design-Build contract that would build the park in phases with all the construction substantially complete by Dec. 2011. Bids have been received and construction is ready to begin July 1.

Last Friday, Donovan, along with another former councilman, Jack Nobles, notified the city that they were starting another petition drive to rescind the Design-Build contract. They have until July 12 to gather enough signatures to force a referendum.

Only Pensacola can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. There is a pathological need among certain leaders to defeat progress. They can’t recognize a good deal when they see one, but will tolerate cheats and corruption among their own.

So now you’ve got the “Cliff Notes” version of the Community Maritime Park.