Presser notes: ST Scramble, Fear of Clawbacks & Power of Myth

By Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

–Much of Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson’s weekly press conference was spent discussing the city’s manufacturing-jobs ambitions at the airport — dubbed Project Titan — but other subjects were touched on as well, including the soccer complex proposed for Langley Avenue and the issue of property rights on Pensacola Beach. 

Robinson began the Monday morning presser relaying a day recently spent with the Pensacola Fire Department. He noted the patch-emblazoned jacked the department had given him and talked about spending time with senior leadership as well as new recruits.

“I felt like part of the team,” the mayor said.

Robinson said he visited the newly constructed Station 3 on Summit Boulevard, and went out on a call with firefighters from Station 4. While out on a call, responding to a woman having a stroke, the mayor noticed what he was told is a common problem: drivers not giving right of way to firetrucks with sirens blaring.

“Please pull over. If you see the fire truck, police truck, ambulance, with sirens, please pull over. I could not believe how many people were pulling out in front of us,” the mayor said. “Every second counts.”

Project Triumph

The city has been attempting to secure $25 million still needed for a four-hangar project at the Pensacola International Airport aimed at attracting aerospace manufacturing jobs. The $210 million project has gotten money from a variety of sources, including a Triumph Gulf Coast grant, which stems from environmental penalties associated with the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Robinson detailed how he would be asking the Pensacola City Council to allocate another $5 million towards the project, and Escambia County to pitch in another $5 million as well. Then the city will approach Triumph again in February for that remaining $15 million; this ask is scaled back from a previously rejected request for the entire $25 million.

Robinson also said that his recent trips to Tallahassee to meet with state legislators, and Chipley to meet with Florida Department of Transportation officials appeared to be fruitful, with “fairly positive signals” indicating that the city may — eventually, by 2023 — get an additional $25 million to put towards Project Triumph.

“It does appear that while we may not be able to make a heavy lift this year, because of what’s going on with [Hurricane] Michael, there is an expectation that we may be able to slide this into the work plan the fifth year out,” Robinson said.

If the city is unsuccessful in securing the funds needed to continue with Project Titan, the mayor said that the existing tenant, ST Engineering, could consider looking elsewhere to base its operations. If that happened, he said, the city would be losing out on jobs as well as the area’s aspirations of becoming a hub for the aerospace manufacturing industry.

Robinson also took a moment to defend the significant expenditure of public funds to realize the improvements at the airport and associated jobs. He pointed out that ST would be providing training, and that the city would own all the improvements — the hangars, the tarmac, etc. — and, most of all, the jobs.

“When you get a manufacturing job it leads to, I believe, another two and a half jobs, that’s what the study showed,” Robinson said. “I believe our 1,300 jobs spin out to about 4,200 jobs.”

Related to the city’s aerospace ambitions, Mayor Robinson was asked about a $3 million Triumph grant set aside for the Escambia County School District. The grant is for workforce training, but is currently in jeopardy because the school district has flinched at requirements that the money would have to be paid back if performance benchmarks are not met.

“I know some of the challenges that are out there deal with clawbacks,” Robinson said. “And it is a little difficult how some of this stuff is structured.”

The mayor said he had not discussed the issue with Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, but did feel an opportunity was being forfeited.

“I’d rather see us moving and taking the risk,” he said. “I understand all these things have risk, but I think we’re in the business of taking mitigated risk.”

Soccer Mitigations

Recently, a contingent of resident in the Scenic Heights neighborhood have voiced concerns with the city’s plans to place a soccer complex near Hitzman Park off of Langley Avenue. They feel the project will change the park and clog Langley with traffic.

“These things always happen,” Robinson said of the negative feedback. “I get it. It’s difficult, something’s changed.”

Mayor Robinson said the city had “a really good meeting” with people in the neighborhood and was working to address their concerns about the project.

“There was a list of about 10 items,” the mayor said.

Robinson said that engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonlad is currently looking at the possibility of downsizing two of the three planned fields, and consolidating the overall complex. Other considerations include employing traffic signals or a roundabout, as well as a four-way stop at Langley and Leesway.

“We are happy to look and evaluate everything we can do.”

Myths on the Beach

Though he doesn’t sit on the Escambia County Commission any longer, Mayor Robinson previously represent the area of Pensacola Beach. He weighed in on the commission’s current conversation about the possibility of codifying a recent non-binding referendum supporting keeping the beach public, as opposed to allowing private ownership of property that must currently be released repetitively.

“The problem is we’re not very honest in our discussions,” Robinson said. “We sell ourselves on this myth — and myths are incredibly crazy, they do attach a lot of emotion to it — and I think there’s this myth that it’s all public. We’ll actually a lot of these leases are done out there, and they’re renewable, and they’re renewable beyond that, in fact that’s why the court said they’re taxable, because you get it for 99 years, you can renew it for 99 years, you can get it for 99 years after that, I mean that’s 297 years.”

Robinson said he considered the more important issue to be ensuring that land on the beach currently not leased remain public.

“I was never worried about what was leased when I was over there, I was very worried about what was unleased,” he said. “To me that is what is public, that is what should be preserved.”

Robinson noted the fear that if allowed to privately own their currently leased properties, owners could pool their lots and build a condo. He suggested holding on to the public roadways, parking lots and sidewalks as a way of preventing such developments.

“It prevents assemblage and a variety of other things,” he said, also suggesting that the opposing viewpoints on beach ownership were separated only by the ‘myth’ of the beach being really public to begin with. “I really don’t think people are that far apart on what they want to save, but they get hung up on this issue of what’s public and what’s leased and what’s called that and I think it makes it very difficult for us to find solutions, because we do get hung up on this myth.”