by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly
The city of Pensacola plans to borrow $17 million to be used for unspecified — though, heavily suggested — projects within its downtown core.
“I think that this is a wise decision,” said Mayor Grover Robinson, just before Pensacola City Council approved the move July 18.
The mayor said that the funds will enable the city to tackle improvement projects geared toward walkability and connectivity. In short, the borrowing was presented within the context of a pair of projects outlined recently by New York City-based urban design firm SCAPE.
“I do think that this allows us to see some amenities, the Bruce Beach amenities and a number of things happening, walkability on Main Street, the challenges we’re having,” Robinson said in selling council on the borrow. “I think this is a good thing for us to be doing.”
In the arrangement approved on a 5-2 vote by council, the city will refinance $40 million in old debt associated with the Community Maritime Park — a move expected to save the city $5.5 million — and then borrow $17.7 million to be used for new projects.
The borrowed funds will be used for improvements within the Urban Core Redevelopment Area, and paid back via tax increment financing, or TIF, within the CRA district. The interest associated with this new loan will be north of $13 million.
While council’s approval does not denote what exactly the $17 million can be used for, the move comes after a season worth of discussions about improving walkability and opening up the downtown’s waterfront. These discussions were driven by the work of SCAPE, who came to town — at the behest of developer Quint Studer — to develop a plan that would result in downtown Pensacola feeling more walkable and also more connected, particularly to its sometimes obscured waterfront.
SCAPE’s work resulted in two separate projects. The first, dubbed the Hashtag project, involves plans rethinking a cluster of downtown streets in an effort to make the core more walkable and safe for pedestrians. The second, more involved and expensive prjoect, calls for developing a currently near-hidden downtown beach, known as Bruce Beach.
It is with these projects on the table that council approved the borrowing of $17 million. Councilman P.C. Wu, as he has in the past, compared the projects to the construction of the Maritime Park, and said they would have similarly “transformative” results.
“I think we’re on the precipice of a second transformative event and that’s what we’re looking at financing now,” the councilman said.
Wu went on to say that he felt that SCAPE’s work had received a fair amount of public input and that the apparent public support for the projects made him feel good about voting to borrow the money.
“This SCAPE process has had huge citizen input,” Wu said. “It’s something that the citizens have told us that they want.”
Councilwoman Ann Hill expressed counter concerns, saying that while the public sentiment did seem positive, she wondered where the voices of critique were? When would members of the public begin voicing concerns about these projects and the associated costs?
Council President Andy Terhaar and Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn, who chairs the CRA, both said that there would be workshops conducted prior to any decision about what the $17 million would be spent on.
While most of city council was on board with borrowing the money to fund improvement projects downtown, two members were entirely opposed to the move. Councilwoman Sherri Myers said that incurring additional debt was not necessary — “the borrowing of this money is not a necessity, it is not a need, it is a want” — and Councilman Gerald Wingate contended the funds would not benefit the entirety of the city.
Wingate also said that he had a problem with borrowing $17 million that are for all practical purposes earmarked for projects — the SCAPE proposals — that have yet to be approved by city council.
“We’re looking at projects that have not been approved, but if we vote it in tonight, I’m pretty sure they will get done,” Wingate said. “That’s the other part I’m not comfortable with.”