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Saturday April 19th 2014

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Asking Y


Questions on the Waterfront
by Jeremy Morrison

For nearly three hours the question hung over the heads of the Pensacola City Council: ‘What is the Y?’ Projected onto a screen, it was the first slide of the YMCA team’s never-presented presentation.

But everyone already knew about the ‘what.’ The questions being asked by the council were where, when, how, how much, who and why.

A lease with the YMCA for parcel number eight—a prime piece of waterfront real estate in the Community Maritime Park that once had been set aside for a maritime museum—laid before the city council. Hundreds in blue Maritime Y t-shirts filled the gallery and pushed for the lease’s approval.

“It’s very easy to criticize in this world, we were elected to lead, so let’s lead,” Mayor Ashton Hayward urged the council. “Let’s lead today, let’s support this, we’ll work the details out.”

Y Dream?

The Community Maritime Park is home to the Blue Wahoo’s baseball stadium and an amphitheater. And not much else.

City officials have high hopes for the properties at the park. Ideally, developments at the park will serve to stimulate activity, thus growth, increased tax revenues and municipal and community nirvana.

Quint and Rishy Studer have agreed to construct an office building at the CMP, but the park is otherwise wanting for tenants. The Wahoos-owners have put money on the table—as have others in the community—to cover the construction of a new YMCA at the maritime park.

Proponents paint the YMCA as a potential catalyst for community health and a driver of economic growth. Others have raised highest-and-best-use concerns, challenging the Y’s ability to draw people downtown and noting that the organization is a non-profit that pays no ad valorem tax.

Steve Williams, chairman of the YMCA board of directors, asked council members if they knew of anything that draws the community together. He’d been thinking about it and was drawing a blank.

“This family Maritime Y would do that,” Williams told them.

He projected generations into the future, asking the city council to consider the area’s future residents and what the lack of a Y at the park might mean to them.

“They’ll read about what could have been and the opportunity that was lost because the city of Pensacola failed to take action,” Williams said.

Councilman Charles Bare questioned the suitability of parcel eight—“get flood insurance, because it will flood.” He suggested the Y would be better located elsewhere and noted the city would soon be bringing in a firm to market the park parcels. Bare called inking a deal with the Y “a little bit premature.”

The councilman also questioned proponents’ claim that the Y would generate activity downtown. He compared the notion to the movie “Field of Dreams,” and it’s build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy.

“Certainly, I am not ashamed to vote for dreams,” countered Councilman Brian Spencer.

Mayor Hayward put his official weight behind the Maritime Y for the first time. He asked council to put aside concerns—“we can argue all day and everyday about highest and best use”—and support the project.

“This is good for the community,” Hayward said. “This is good for downtown.”

Bare had recalled the mayor referring to the CMP as a “bag of tricks,” in reference to the difficulty in leasing the properties. Hayward said the situation could be turned into a “winner” in this instance.

“We can turn this into a winner, and we should turn this into a winner,” the mayor said. “This is a winner, we need to support it. We’ll work the lease out.”

Compromise Motion

The lease put before the city council on March 11 wasn’t what Councilwoman Megan Pratt would call a “clean lease.” Instead City Attorney Jim Messer called the document “the best proposal that the YMCA is prepared to make.”

“The bells and whistles may be put on later,” Messer said.

Beyond the general proposal, council members had concerns about various aspects of the lease. To begin with, they wondered why it lay before them in the first place.

Council Vice President Jewel Cannada-Wynn compared it to a picnic—“now, I love picnics”—describing a spread of food that overwhelmed her plate.

“By the time I get to the end of the line, it looked like slop,” she said. “It was the presentation of it that turned me off, not that the food wasn’t good.”

The vice president complained about the way in which the lease had been brought to the council, arguing that the Community Maritime Park Associates board should have signed off on it first.

After hours of discussion, the council was still split on approving the Y lease. Eventually, Pratt offered up some mercy in the form of a motion that seemed to satisfy both the room full of proponents and the concerns of council.

“The YMCA would like to know, is there a possibility, or is it dead?” Pratt said, asking her cohorts to give their nod to the concept of placing the Y on the CMP’s parcel eight, while throwing the lease to the CMPA board to “hammer out” council’s various concerns.

Council granted the Maritime Y their blessing—in concept—by a 6-2 vote, with Cannada-Wynn and Bare dissenting and President P.C. Wu absent.