Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 18th 2014

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Making Maritime Work

There’s a Ballpark, Now What?
By Jeremy Morrison

From one side of Pensacola City Hall there is a sparkling bay view of the Community Maritime Park across the street. Randy Oliver is tucked away in the finance department on the other side of the building.

It’s a stark office. There’s no view of the park. Just binders full of numbers and agreements and amendments to agreements. This is where Oliver plans to figure out the mess across the street.

“What things can we do better?” he said. “What can we do differently? How can we maximize the facility?”

Oliver was formerly Escambia County’s administrator. He’s now working as a consultant for the city of Pensacola, brought aboard to assess the finances of the Community Maritime Park Associates as well as future prospects.

Known as a numbers-man, Oliver enters the scene just as the CMPA requested forgiveness from the city—or rather, the Community Redevelopment Agency—on a $500,000 loan. The CRA—composed of Pensacola City Council members—denied that request earlier this month.

“It should act like a business and not a public service project,” Councilwoman Jewel Canada-Wynn said at the time.

The CMPA borrowed the $500,000 a year ago for so-called “back of the house” amenities—dressing rooms, restrooms—for the amphitheater. That amount represents the entirety of the facility’s revenue and half of its budget this year.

“If they cannot pay this loan,” Canada-Wynn posed, “how are they paying basic operational costs?”

CMPA Chairman Collier Merrill pleaded the park board’s case—“we’ve come a long way”—and said the city had been tapped to coordinate events at the site and advised against squeezing the Pensacola Blue Wahoos baseball team for too much money.

“A lot of people want to bring up Pensacola baseball and say you’ve got to squeeze every penny out of them—we’ve got to be careful with that,” the chairman said.

Merrill told the CRA that the park was currently looking at several revenue possibilities. The one that seemed to pop for CRA Chairman Brian Spencer was the notion of selling naming-rights.

“Several hundred thousand dollars naming rights?” Spencer asked Merrill. “In what is currently the no-name stadium?”

In the end, the CRA extended the CMPA’s loan eight months, from January until September. In the meantime, it required the park board to compile a list of its expenditures, revenues and a plan to better the prospects in the future.

“I want to give them a real, good healthy opportunity to take a look at this,” Councilman Larry B. Johnson told his fellow CRA members after making the extension motion.

Leaning forward in his desk chair, Oliver estimated it should take him about six months to get a fix on the scene at the park. He will be looking at ways to cut costs and maximize revenues.

When he turns in his final report, it will not be a collection of intangibles or theoreticals. It will be precise instructions for going forward.

“It’s going to be nuts-and-bolts specifics,” Oliver said. “Visions are good—I may want to fly to the moon, but how do I get there?”

Much of the revenue potential of the CMPA lies in the multiple empty parcels surrounding the park. With only one parcel sold to Wahoos owner Quint Studer to build an office building, sales and development of the properties are a long-term goal.

Currently, much of the revenue generated at the park—via use agreements—comes from the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, which have about 70 dates a year on the calendar. The question is what to do with the rest of the year.

“You want to minimize your dark nights,” Oliver explained. “It’s like a hotel that doesn’t sell any rooms—you still have your base costs.”

This isn’t Oliver’s first experience with a ballpark. When working in South Florida, he was involved with the construction of a Minnesota Twins training facility. In Arizona, his county position saw him working with a facility that hosted spring training games for the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals, but a facility that only had 26 such games a year.

“You’ve got to do a lot of things with the stadium when you only have 26 games a year,” Oliver said.

The consultant said he’s already dug up about $100,000—by streamlining staff—and is aiming to set the CMPA on more respectable financial ground by the time he’s done.

“The goal being to make it so the operation portion of the site is totally self sufficient,” Oliver explained. “It wasn’t intended to cover the debt service, but it was intended to cover operations.”

About a week after the CRA rejected the CMPA’s forgiveness request, Merrill said the move came as no surprise to the park board.

“I don’t think they really expected the council to forgive it,” the chairman said.

He sounded cautiously optimistic about the CMPA’s financial future. The board is looking at a deal entailing digital billboards at the stadium that could net a couple hundred thousand dollars up front in addition to annual revenue. And, of course, there’s renaming rights for both the stadium and the field—which Merrill expects to fetch a higher price after the Wahoos winning first season.

“I think it increases the stock a lot as far as what that’s gonna go for,” he said.

When discussing the issue with the CRA, Merrill noted the success of the park’s recent grand opening celebration the city hosted. Originally rained out during last June’s storms, the event was rescheduled for November and featured the Charlie Daniels Band.

“That showed what we can do with bands and fireworks and a lot of good things out there,” Merrill told the CRA.

Undistracted by half of city hall’s gorgeous view of the Community Maritime Park, Oliver has plenty to look at. For starters, there’s the stack of thick binders on his desk.

“It’s a good process—I’m sure they’ll be some bumps and bruises—but it’s a necessary one,” he said, promising an applicable blueprint for the CMPA. “It will not be a vision, it will be a plan to be executed.”