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NEWS | Vol. 6, No. 45, November 9, 2006
(Pensacola's Most Historic Vote)

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The story behind Pensacola' s most historic vote

by Duwayne Escobedo

Fourteen days remained until Pensacola voters decided the fate of the largest public-private development in city history—the Vince Whibbs Sr. Community Maritime Park.

Mort O’Sullivan called Quint Studer to discuss planning a victory party. Studer wouldn’t hear of it. He was afraid to jinx the Sept. 5 referendum.

“He was very superstitious and got really upset about it,” recalls O’Sullivan, the Friends of the Waterfront Park PAC treasurer. “He didn’t want to be over confident and let up. He said, ‘Don’t talk about these things.’ We realized we just couldn’t not plan for it. So, we made the plans, we just didn’t talk to him about it.”

Phone surveys projected 56 percent of city voters would support the $70.4 million project to build a waterfront park, baseball stadium, maritime park museum, University of West Florida labs and classrooms, a conference center, offices, restaurants and shops.

Friends of the Waterfront Park volunteers, who canvassed every street in Pensacola during the final 12 weeks leading up to the election, found 58 percent planning to vote for the development in downtown on 30 acres on Pensacola Bay.

Still Studer, who spearheaded the project along with University of West Florida President John Cavanaugh and the late U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman, refused to celebrate until all but two of the city precincts had reported their results on election night and the lead looked insurmountable.

Sitting in O’Sullivan’s downtown office a block away from the waterfront site, Studer finally agreed to walk to the victory party in full swing at Seville Quarter. He had prepared remarks in case voters turned down the proposal but hadn’t prepared a victory speech.

“He was just a basket case. He refused to get joyous or angry,” O’Sullivan says. “We were on the Internet and on the phone constantly getting updates. Finally, I told him, ‘C’mon, we got to go.’ We got over to Seville and he didn’t want the lime light. We had our anxious moments but we were pretty happy by then.”

Studer, the president of the healthcare consulting company Studer Group and owner of the minor league baseball team the Pensacola Pelicans, says despite barbs from Save Our City members who opposed the park, such as calling the plan “Studerville,” he believed in the development.

“I would have been disappointed if the project lost,” he says. “But I knew I could wake up the next day knowing I just wanted to make Pensacola a better place to live. We weren’t trying to stop something, we were trying to build something. But I had no idea at the beginning what that would encompass in time, energy and money.”

Shortly before Save Our City earned enough signatures June 13 to force a referendum, Studer says he briefly considered whether to continue pushing for the project when his wife, Rishy, questioned him about it during breakfast one day. The Pensacola City Council had approved it 9-1 in March, with only City Councilman Marty Donovan opposing it.

“We had hit a wall and she was looking at me and asking, ‘Is this really worth it?’” he says. “It was one of those defining moments, like God is or God isn’t. People were saying some pretty hurtful things. But I looked at her and said, ‘Yeah, it is worth it.’ The last four months, I felt really strong.”

Still, he says Rishy Studer could have stopped the whole thing at any point. After all, she is the one who handles the couple’s checkbook. They spent more than $700,000 on the campaign.

“Day in and day out it was my wife who was writing the checks and dealing with the abuse,” he says. “But we felt like this was a great opportunity and we were very united. We felt like it was an investment in the community, not an investment in a campaign. Our $700,000 investment will create $51 million in salaries for people and families. It will create 1,500 jobs for people and 30 percent of the work is committed to go to minority companies. That’s an unbelievably great return on an investment.”

O’Sullivan remembers the spark for developing the so-called Trillium property was a meeting called by Mayor John Fogg and City Manager Tom Bonfield shortly after Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 to discuss the heavily damaged Main Street sewage plant, economic development and revitalization of the city. A city proposal to build an auditorium and park on the prime waterfront property was rejected soundly by Pensacola voters in March 2003.

Studer and Fetterman did not attend the meeting. But at the time, Studer had looked at the American Creosote site on Main and Barrancas streets for a multi-use park with a conference center, offices and retail space. However, environmental problems nixed the idea. Meanwhile, Fetterman had been pushing a maritime museum. Unknown to Studer and Fetterman, Pensacola architect Miller Caldwell was working on both of their projects.

Approached with the idea of combining their ideas on the Trillium site, both told Caldwell to prepare a conceptual drawing for a second meeting with city leaders that turned out to be the vision for the Community Maritime Park.

“It was impressive to see a half-mile of waterfront encompassing 30 barren acres come to life on paper,” O’Sullivan says in a story that he wrote on the park project. “I’ll never forget Admiral Fetterman, when in the spirit of a Texas Hold ‘em poker game, pushed his papers and notes into the middle of the table and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m all in.’”

Fetterman had talked to Cavanaugh about the maritime museum. In the following weeks, university officials came up with the idea to extend the campus to downtown by putting the history, marine biology and archaeology departments onto the site with classrooms and office space that the college would pay commercial rental rates for. The university’s presence also would help with attracting matching state funds for construction of the maritime museum.

A project team of Dick Appleyard (public relations), Bob Hart (legal counsel), Caldwell (architect) and O’Sullivan (accountant and financial adviser) was assembled to begin pitching the proposal to the city council in late 2004.

“I knew it was not viable for 100 percent of our citizens to be in favor of the project,” O’Sullivan says now. “But I knew we couldn’t be frozen by fear. I’m 55-years-old and I felt it was time for me to take a stand on something I believed in for the good of the community.”

Studer says during one of his healthcare seminars in Altoona, Pa., he met in February 2005 with nationally known urban planner Ray Gindroz in Pittsburgh to find out what Gindroz thought of the project. Gindroz later was hired for $200,000 to lead meetings to get public input on the plans during a nearly three-month process.

“We had meetings with all the city council members and they all went really well, except the one with Mr. Donovan,” Studer recalls. “I asked (Gindroz) if it was a good idea and he said it was exactly what progressive cities were doing around the country.”

Still, after public input and getting city approval in March 2006—about 14 months after first being proposed—Save Our City Chairman Charlie Fairchild led a petition drive to let voters decide the issue, like he had done in 2003.

“Some people thought they were signing petitions for Save Our Whales,” Studer says.

Studer, Sullivan and other park proponents say the hardest part of the summer battle was following the advice of campaign advisers to wait until the final three weeks to fight back against misinformation put out by Save Our City.

“It was a little like the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fight,” Studer says. “We let them throw everything at us during the petition drive and after that until the last three weeks. When we took a poll and it still showed us ahead, we knew we were in good shape.”

Polls showed voters favored the park by 4 percentage points. The lead meant park proponents also had overcome what pollsters discovered was about a 40 percent rate of voters in Pensacola that would vote no on any project no matter what. Typically, cities negative voters hover around 20 percent.

Still, it was a tough call to run the Chuck & Donno cartoons and TV ads that Appleyard developed that poked fun at Save Our City members as crotchety old men in favor of doing nothing, O’Sullivan says.

The ads turned out to be popular and O’Sullivan says even Fairchild found them funny enough to request copies of all the cartoons.

“I think I was the most uneasy about going negative,” O’Sullivan says. “My wife, Nancy, and Donovan’s wife, Helene, have been the dearest of friends and talked to each other every week since they have been in high school. Now, their husbands were on opposite sides. They agreed early on it would be best not to talk about it and they didn’t ever bring up the issue.”  

O’Sullivan spent five hours in his office one Sunday developing his own factual responses to each of Save Our City’s dozen reasons to vote against the park. It was also later developed into an ad campaign.

Maritime park leaders give Jeff DeWeese, Juanita Scott, and Buzz and Debbie Ritchie credit among others for coordinating door-to-door canvassing and getting out the vote on election day. As part of its campaign strategy, park supporters also decided to go against campaign advisers and court support among young and minority voters, Studer says.

DeWeese, who says he still has about 2,000 Waterfront Park campaign signs piled in his garage and whose toddler points to them and says, “Daddy,” says Friends of the Waterfront Park volunteers hit every house where citizens voted in most of the past elections. Every yes, no and undecided vote was mapped out by address. He also helped map every house that signed a Save Our City petition.

In the seven city districts, park supporters found 3,198 residences in favor of the plan and 2,320 against, which means 58 percent were in favor of the Community Maritime Park.

“We had a real good feeling for who was going to the polls,” he says.

On Election Day, Waterfront Park poll watchers were stationed at all of the city’s precincts and periodically called campaign headquarters to report who had voted. A phone bank of six people then called voters, who said they approved of the project but hadn’t voted, to urge them to go to the polls.

“We had some people call us back and say we could stop calling them, they had made it to the polls,” DeWeese says, laughing.

In the end, 9,842 approved the park (56 percent) and 7,701 voted no. Of 37,555 eligible voters, 17,500 cast ballots, a 46.6 percent turnout.

Studer says the biggest turning point during the last 10 days of the election was a meeting with more than two dozen local black ministers.

“That was really exciting,” he says. “They had always been supportive but then they were really pushing it forward.”

In fact, the margin of victory among majority black precincts, which made up 23 percent of the vote, was 1,112 votes. The margin of victory among majority white precincts, which accounted for 77 percent of the vote, was 1,045 votes.

Studer says knowing what he knows now, he’d still go through with the whole process again.

“When you look back, what do you see as the defining moments in Pensacola’s history?” Studer asks. “In Charleston, they’ll tell you it was the development of its waterfront park. In Montgomery, they say it’s when they put a ballpark in on the river. We don’t have that one defining moment. But years from now, I believe people in our community will say this was the defining moment in the history of Pensacola.”

It’s In Their Hands Now…

Who’s responsible now for bringing the $70 million Vince Whibbs Sr. Community Maritime Park to life?

The 12-member Community Maritime Park Associates Board of Trustees headed by Chairman Lacey Collier will bring the development, which was approved by 56 percent of Pensacola voters Sept. 5, from concept to completion.

Collier, a U.S. District Court judge, says the board is moving as quickly as possible to address environmental issues and move forward with development, which is projected to take about three years to complete. It recently held its third meeting on the park project.

“Some people who come before me in court may not agree, but it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life,” Collier says. “It is so important to this city and it’s people. It affects all of us.”

Quint Studer, the Studer Group president and Pensacola Pelicans owner who spearheaded the project, points out he’s no longer involved in the park’s development but says he trusts the new CMPA board. He says the biggest challenge will be to move forward quickly with construction costs increasing an average of 3 to 4 percent monthly.

“I’m out of it now, but this is a great board,” he says. “They’re creative and have the highest integrity.”

Board members are: Collier, a federal judge; Dick Baker, a real estate developer; Eddie Todd, an architect; Rev. Hugh King, Greater Union Baptist Church pastor; Collier Merrill, a real estate developer; Katie White, an attorney; Rodney Jackson, a banker; Susan Story, Gulf Power CEO; John Fogg, Pensacola mayor; John Merting, an attorney; Juanita Scott, Pensacola Junior College professional development coordinator; and Jimmy Jones, a physician.

For more information:
City of Pensacola
Ed Spears, Neighborhood & Economic Development Administrator
436-5655
Friends of the Waterfront Park PAC
Mort O’Sullivan, Treasurer
607-7260

duwayne@inweekly.net