For the past year, the city of Pensacola’s Neighborhood Services Department has managed the Community Maritime Park. Outside the bounds of the Blue Wahoos’ baseball season, it has been a year full of boat shows, Zumba classes, private weddings and drive-in movies.
The park’s official grand opening, featuring a performance by the Charlie Daniels Band, could be viewed as a high-water mark on the events calendar. According to Neighborhood Services’ Kim Carmody, that may be the most we should expect—more formidable acts apparently won’t be interested in dates at the waterfront facility.
“They’re going to be either up-and-comers or has-beens,” Carmody said. “We’re not going to be able to get your—I can’t think of a popular—J.J. L-Cool [sic] or Madonna, those are millions and millions of dollars, but you know, maybe Rick Springfield would come out, great ‘80s band, but that’s who we’re going to be able to get out there.”
Carmody made her entertainment forecast during a presentation to the Community Maritime Park Associates Board of Trustees. The board, however, was more interested in the how than the who.
“We feel like mushrooms,” CMPA member John Merting told Carmody, “we’re fed B.S. and we’re kept in the dark, and that’s not very beneficial.”
Specifically, CMPA members raised concerns about how the city was going about securing the services of a venue management company. And about an increasingly murky chain of command.
Several months ago, the CMPA voted to put out a Request for Proposals for the management of the park. Instead, city staff decided to enter into negotiations with one specific company.
“We opted out of the RFP for various reasons,” Carmody said, explaining that the city was choosing to negotiate with a management company that already has a footprint in the area and would be able to offer up alternative, indoor local venues in the event of rain.
Although everyone in the room seemed to already know the subtext of the conversation, Carmody refused to reveal the name of the company the city is negotiating with. It would eventually slip out between the lines—the negotiations are with SMG, which already manages the Saenger Theater for the city, as well as the Pensacola Bay Center for Escambia County.
SMG also responded to the CMPA’s original RFP for management services, but was passed over in favor of the city.
“I’m still a little confused about the RFP issue,” said CMPA member Dr. Samuel Bolden. “We’ve given you a directive on one thing, and you’ve come back and said, ‘We’ve done this and this.’ It looks as though you’re overstepping what we’ve asked you to do.”
Other board members agreed, but CMPA Executive Director Ed Spears—also a city employee—contended that the city had the right to forgo the RFP and enter into negotiations. He also stated that the city was not negotiating a new contract—which would not be kosher—but was instead looking to expand an existing contract.
CMPA Treasurer Jim Reeves was curious how exactly this went down. How could the CMPA’s directive for an RFP seemingly evaporate?
“So, why did we change about whether we wanted an RFP or not?” Reeves asked. “I’m talking about ‘we,’ now, not the city staff.”
“That’s a really good question,” Carmody answered. “I don’t think you did change the mandate—or, the ‘request’—but the interpretation of the contract is that we don’t necessarily, um, how we arrive at the conclusion, which is we want concerts in the amphitheater—”
Reeves interrupted and pushed for an answer. He wanted a name.
“As your agent, it would be me, it would be on my shoulders,” Carmody said.
Reeves poked a little more, just for fun, again requesting an RFP. Carmody’s smile tightened, she paused and took a deep breath. With the CMPA already one of this season’s favorite political piñatas—the city council is currently considering retooling the park board—this was akin to tap dancing through a mine field.
“I understand that you want an RFP,” she said. “And I clearly hear what you’re saying. But, the reality is, I’m not sure—as we’re interpreting the contract—that that is a possibility. We’ve done the research; we’re not doing anything that’s illegal, unethical. We’re following the guidelines, we’re following the policies, we’re going through the proper steps, checks and balances, and so nothing is being done that is shady, that is wrong.”
“What made you change your mind on the RFP, and to negotiate with the mystery promoter?” Reeves plodded on.
Carmody said “multiple conversations with multiple promoters,” as well as the desire to move quickly to begin slating concerts at the park had driven the decision.
“They’re not knocking down our door to jump in,” she explained. “The pressure, from here as well as from the community, they want to see things in the park, they want to see things happening in the park. Basically we went from A to B in the quickest possible way. They’re a reputable company, they do a good job, they have the resources, they have the manpower, it’s a win-win.”
Board members, however, said the move showed a lack of transparency and described it as “bad business.” As a snapshot, it’s illustrative of the unraveling nature of the relationship between the city and the CMPA—a wild ride that might well end, as Reeves put it, with the Pensacola City Council’s designs to “invite us to Palafox and Garden and have a big firing.”
“All we can do is vote and pass motions,” summed up Merting, “and if the people that we work with thumb their nose at us, that’s what they’re going to do.”