Council narrowly approves more Titan Money

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

–The Pensacola City Council narrowly approved committing another $5 million to the so-called Project Titan — a jobs and infrastructure project at the airport — after lengthy debates Wednesday on the merits of spending public dollars to incentivize private industry in general and more specifically about the return-on-investment prospects of Titan.

“We’re really talking about the future of Pensacola,” said Councilman P.C. Wu, arguing in support of committing further funds to the project during the specially called meeting.

“I think it’s too much money,” said Councilwoman Sherri Myers, who sided with the dissent in what was to be a 4-3 split committing Local Option Sales Tax funds toward the project.

Mayor Grover Robinson had called the special council meeting for the same reason he will be going before the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners on Thursday: to ask for $5 million more for Project Titan before going to Triumph Gulf Coast board members — who oversee the divvying up of penalty funds related to the 2010 oil spill —  Friday to request an additional $15 million, all so that the city can get a previously allotted $56 million from Triumph for the project.

The overall project runs north of $200 million, is projected to create more than 1,700 jobs and involves the construction of four hangars to house, at this time, ST Engineering’s operations.

In an effort to lure ST and its jobs to town, city officials have worked for years to piece together funding and a deal. Now, Mayor Robinson told council, the aerospace firm needed assurances that the city’s promises of facilities to accommodate manufacturing operations — dependent largely on Triumph money, as well as funding from a variety of other sources — will materialize.

“We certainly have very large requests,” Robinson noted, before asking council to “start the ball first” by approving the city’s $5 million commitment before he meets with the county commission and Triumph. “They’re waiting for a signal from us.”

Any signal city council may have sent Triumph was mixed. While some council members felt the high cost was worth it for a chance to realize ST’s promised jobs and the associated benefits, as well as potentially jumpstarting an aerospace manufacturing hub in the area, other members couldn’t justify spending LOST revenue — money otherwise heading to efforts like streetlight improvements — on a project heavy on “Field of Dreams”-hopes and less so on tangible numbers.

“I toured the facility this week, and it’s incredible,” Councilman Jared Moore said. “To say it’s impressive would be an understatement.”

Although he said he “loved the project,” Moore added that he also saw some “red flags” that indicated it was “just not sustainable.”

“A 30-year term and looking at the ad valorem–we’re not breaking even in that time,” Moore said.

If all four hangars are constructed and occupied, the council was informed, the city would be getting $423,000 annually in property taxes (Escambia County would get $1.7 million). There would also be other associated benefits, such as increased sales tax revenues.

Councilwomen Sherri Myers and Ann Hill said they objected to the use of LOST funds for the project, contending that money should be left for projects such as repairing sidewalks and upgrading street lights to LED. Myers also noted that the jobs ST will create — filled with highly skilled and certified manufacturing employees — will not necessarily go to the local workforce, or to people who live within the city or even county.

“It depends on where the people live and where they’re recruited from,” Myers said.

Councilwoman Jewell Cannada Wynn said committing $5 million in LOST funding was “a hard decision,” but that the potential for decent paying jobs in the city was too attractive not to heavily incentivize the effort.

“Do I like incentivizing?” she asked rhetorically. “It is the name of the game in some places.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Wu said, “Mobile hasn’t grown the way it did because they didn’t provide any incentives.”

With council’s approval of committing another $5 million to Project Titan, Mayor Robinson will ask Escambia County officials for the same on Thursday. After that, it’s onward to the big ask from Triumph on Friday.