Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday November 20th 2018

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Community Maritime Park – Past and Present

By Rick Outzen

In January 2005, four months after Hurricane Ivan devastated the city of Pensacola, three men presented a waterfront development plan to the Pensacola City Council that began the long, arduous journey of revitalizing downtown Pensacola.

The council vote would eventually lead to the development of the Vince Whibbs, Sr. Community Maritime Park, the acquisition of Cincinnati Reds Double A affiliate and construction of downtown’s largest office building in more than two decades. It would be the catalyst for the redevelopment of Palafox Street, earning it the reputation as one of the top 10 Main Streets in the country.

It will also be the beginning of an inclusive process that pushed for greater diversity in government procurement and the creation of the Pensacola Young Professionals. The vote would help launch the political careers of several city council persons, including Maren Deweese, Megan Pratt, Larry Johnson and Brian Spencer, as well as Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May. Even the passage of 2010 charter for the city of Pensacola can be tied back to that historic vote.

The Pensacola City Council vote, 8-2, to approve the concept of the waterfront development plan was a game changer in the purest sense of the words.

To appreciate the vote’s significance, one needs to step back in time.

Back to the Future
Ten years ago, Pensacola was recovering from a nearly direct hit by Hurricane Ivan that occurred in September 2004. Most homes had roof damage and were covered with blue tarps. Some residences were completely destroyed, and FEMA trailers were parked in front yards to provide temporary housing. The Emerald Coast Utility Authority’s Main Street Sewage Treatment Plant had overflowed and raw sewage had backed into residents and businesses.

The area struggled to regain some sense of normalcy, but normal for downtown Pensacola was very different from what it is today. There was no outdoor dining on Palafox because owners could never predict whether foul odors from the main street sewage plant might drift in their direction. The only bars on Palafox were Jack & Ron’s, Intermission and New York Nick’s. There were even fewer restaurants. Other than jewelers and art galleries, there were hardly any retail shops on the town’s main drag. The street was deserted on weekends.

Across from Pensacola City Hall sat the so-called Trillium property, a former fuel terminal on Pensacola Bay that had sat vacant for over a decade. The 27.5-acre parcel was overgrown with weeds and infested with cat-sized rats. The soil was contaminated and would require remediation before any development could be done on it.

The city had purchased the property in 2000 for $3.63 million. Two years later, the city council approved a $40-million plan for the site that included a 16-acre public park and an $18 million auditorium to replace the ancient Bayfront Auditorium. That vote was overturned in March 2003 by a referendum led by Councilman Marty Donovan.

After Hurricane Ivan struck, Mayor John Fogg and City Manager Tom Bonfield met with the community leaders to discuss how to rebuild the city and revitalize the local economy. The city of Homestead faced a similar dilemma in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew leveled it. They suggested a large public project could be a catalyst.

Quint Studer, co-owner of the city’s baseball team, had been looking for sites to build a baseball stadium for the Pensacola Pelicans. He had consultants analyze the feasibility of the American Creosote site on Main and Barrancas streets for a multi-use park with a conference center, offices and retail space, but the site had significant environmental problems.

Jack Fetterman, the retired admiral who was president and CEO of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, had been pushing for a maritime museum and was looking at the Port of Pensacola as a possible location. Meanwhile, Dr. John Cavanaugh, the president of the University of West Florida, wanted to build a stronger presence in downtown Pensacola.

Mort O’Sullivan, the managing partner of a local CPA firm, helped the city bring all three men together to look at the possibility of building their projects on the Trillium property.

He later described the meeting for Inweekly, “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.’”
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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 for which the college would pay commercial rental rates. 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 said. “But I knew we couldn’t be frozen by fear. It was time for me to take a stand on something I believed in for the good of the community.”

The plan the group developed was ambitious—the News Journal described it as “bold.”  They would propose construction of a community maritime park that would have a public park, multi-use stadium, maritime museum, conference center, retail and commercial spaces.

The price tag was steep $70.7 million plan, but $29.1 million would come from the private sector. Quint and Rishy Studer committed $11.2 million, including $2.2 million in cash and an additional $9 million in cash and lease commitments, to the project. Fetterman pledged to raise $12.8 million for the maritime museum and research facility. Retail and commercial leases are expected to yield another $5 million.

The public portion, $41.6 million, would come from a combination of refinancing city bond issues, state grants and additional tax revenue generated within the Community Redevelopment Agency.

The city council was very positive about the plan and saw its potential.

Councilman Jack Nobles told the daily newspaper, “It’s the best proposal I’ve seen come out since I’ve been on council…I see no downside from the city’s standpoint or the public’s.”

Councilman Ronald Townsend agreed. “I like the access it provides for the public,” he told the media. “We need to move off dead zero. We need to get moving.”

The public response was overwhelmingly positive. Nearly 300 people attended the council meeting, urging city leaders to approve the plan.

Pensacola Mayor Emeritus Vince Whibbs voiced his support for the maritime park because it blended the area’s Naval heritage, waterfront, sports and entrepreneurial ideas.

“I wish these three (pointing to Studer, Fetterman and Cavanaugh) were here 20 years ago,” Whibbs said. “The best is yet to come.”

The council approved the conceptual plan and asked for more public input to tweak it. That should have been the end of the story, but unfortunately this is Pensacola.

Over the next 18 months, Studer spent over half a million dollars getting public input, modifying the final plan and fighting a referendum effort to stop the project after the city council its final approval. Two of the project’s biggest supporters, Fetterman and Whibbs, would die before seeing the voters approve the park.

After months of failing health, Fetterman passed away in his home on March 24, 2006. Whibbs died two months later of a heart attack in his kitchen, while he was leaving to give a speech to rally supporters for the park.

In the speech that was later published on Rick’s Blog, Whibbs expressed his belief that the community maritime park was “the best and only solution to the renaissance of downtown Pensacola.”

He reiterated the vision for the park:

“We are a group of men with the vision to bring solid, sound beatification to our community through a redefinition of the highest and best use of our waterfront assets and a renaissance of pride and confidence in our community.

“The goal is to have waterfront access for all our citizens and visitors—24 hours a day, 365 days each year, and to provide a gathering point for families to enjoy safe, serene accommodations as we share educational, recreational, social and athletic activities in a park we can all use.”

The park would not be completed until six years after the September 2006 referendum. Two more petitions drives to stop the park would fail. An unsuccessful lawsuit would be filed against the Community Maritime Park Associates Board of Trustees. The University of West Florida would pull out of its commitments to build the conference center and maritime museum. The original master developer, Maritime Park Development Partners, would be fired after spending millions with little to show for it.

Meanwhile, the Studers have surpassed their commitments. They contributed $3 million to complete the park and have paid the CMPA $2.1 million during the three seasons the team has used the stadium. In October, , they opened at the park Maritime Place a $16.5-million, four-story office building that is home to EmCare and Studer Group. If one includes the more than $15 million they paid to acquire the Reds’ Double-A affiliate, the Studers have invested through December 2014 over $36.6 million to make the maritime park successful. They have contributed $21.6 million directly into the park, just $3 million shy of the total private sector contribution pledged 10 years ago.

Master Developer 2.0
Now the CMPA and the city of Pensacola are considering a new master developer that has proposed a $65-million investment at the Vince Whibbs Sr. Community Maritime Park. The developer, a joint venture between the Miami-based companies Munilla Construction Management (MCM) and Bermelllo Ajamil & Partners, Inc. (BAP), told the CMPA board at its Jan. 28 meeting that the development would include a 120-room hotel and 200 luxury apartments that can be converted to condominiums.

Munilla Construction Management is a family-owned construction business that has operated in this country for 32 years. Fernando Munilla, Sr., father of the Munilla brothers who founded MCM, was one of Cuba’s premier builders and a pioneer in construction methodology. In 1960, Fidel Castro confiscated the firm and the Munilla family was separated. Four of the sons were brought to the U.S., and the rest of the family followed later.

According to Erick Valderrama, who made the MCM-BAP presentation to the CMPA board, MCM has a bonding capacity of over $1 billion and has never failed to complete a project. The company has offices in Miami, Dallas, Texas and the country of Panama.

Founded in 1939, Bermello Ajamil & Partners is multi-disciplinary architecture firm providing in-house architecture, engineering, planning, interior design and landscape design services to clients around the world. BAP has been involved in the Marina Waterfront Master Plan for Dubai Maritime City in Dubai, UAE—a $7-billion project.

MCM-BAP spokesman Erick Valderrama said they would build on Parcel 4, which faces Main Street and city hall, a select hotel—either Marriott, Hilton or IHG. The parcel currently has 325 parking spaces committed to the Studers and the tenants of Maritime Place.

Valderrama said that Parcel 4 provides high visibility and high daily traffic volumes for the hotel and will allow for 120 parking spaces for the guests. He recommended that 240 parking spaces be relocated to Parcel 5, a grassy area next to the stadium, and 80 spaces to Parcel 6, which is also on Main Street but further west next to the offices of Baskerville-Donovan, Inc. The total hotel investment was estimated to be $20 million.

MCM-BAP proposed to pay a ground rent, which is the greatest of 7.5 percent of annual revenue earned by the hotel, or a minimum annual base rent of $100,000. Rent shall commence the earlier of (a) completion of the hotel facility and commencement of hotel operations; or (b) the 12th month after procurement of a building permit; or (c) the 24th month of entering into a ground rent lease agreement.

For Parcels 7 and 8, which are on Pensacola Bay, the developer proposed 200 luxury-housing rentals with potential for condo conversion subject to market conditions—investment $45 million.

Valderrama said they would build 80 units on Parcel 7, which is on the waterfront near the restaurant Nick’s Boathouse, and 120 units on Parcel 8, which was originally intended for a maritime museum. Both buildings would be elevated to provide parking underneath. The units will be double-sided to provide views of Pensacola Bay and the park and will add to the urban street scene.

MCM-BAP proposed to pay a ground rent that is the greatest of 7.5 percent of annual apartment rental revenue or a minimum base rent of $175,000per annum for both parcels. In the event that MCM-BAP opts out of the apartment business model and proceeds with a condominium development instead, the financial offer to the City will be based on a 7.5 percent of adjusted gross condo sales (i.e. gross sales revenue minus brokerage commissions). Rent shall commence the earlier of (a) the completion of construction and issuance by the City of a Certificate of Occupancy; or (b) 18th month following issuance of a building permit; or (c) the 24th month after entering into a ground rent lease agreement.

Valderrama also discussed the possibility of eventually building a parking garage on Parcel 5.

“We see Parcel 5 as an the opportunity to place structured parking at some point in the future,” he said, “and would have the opportunity to be lined with retail and restaurants. You have the functional opportunity of the garage, but also have the visible opportunity along the perimeter.”

He said MCM-BAP wanted to explore the possibility of working with the CMPA and the city in building a parking structure that would have a minimum of 600 spaces. There aren’t enough parking spaces at the park to accommodate more retail and commercial uses.

“We will need to go vertical (with parking),” Valderrama said.

He said he thought the parking garage could essentially become the heart of the maritime park

“If more people want to use the park, they just can’t get there because they’ll have to a park their cars on the street,” he told the board, but he also admitted that it provided a financial challenge.

“If the CMPA sees the benefit of that parking garage, we have opportunities through our development team to help with some creative means so that the CMPA could provide a parking garage,” Valderrama said.

MCM-BAP also asked for a 99-year lease agreement and did not include in its proposal Parcels 3 and 9. Valderrama said, “However, we would not want to lose the option to development parcels 3 and 9 at a later date.”

Studer Community Investments (SCI) put forth in November a plan to develop Parcel 3 and Parcel 9, the two small parcels, less than a half-acre, immediately adjacent the stadium. However, the CMPA board had voiced little enthusiasm in the SCI plan that called for a childcare and sports museum on Parcel 3 and a training facility for the Wahoos on Parcel 9. SCI agreed to pay lease fees $52,243 immediately, not waiting for the buildings to be completed. Both parcels would have an automatic 7 percent increase every five years.

After the several board members said during the December CMPA meeting that they weren’t in favor of the SCI proposed uses, the Studers withdrew their proposal.

However, the CMPA board of trustees expressed few reservations about the MCM-BAP proposal. Board member Fred Gunther said, “I’m excited about the proposal.”

The only condition added to the motion for approval was resolution of a $23-million lawsuit filed against the CMPA by Scott Davison, an officer of the former master developer.

In February 2014, U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers ruled Davison fraudulently misrepresented its financial backing to the CMPA, and awarded the CMPA a $1.62 million judgment.

Davison appealed Rodger’s ruling to the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

CMPA Chairman Jim Reeves said at the board meeting the federal panel had heard an argument by both plaintiff and defendant and a ruling was expected soon.

After 80 minutes of discussion, board members approved unanimously that their real estate broker CBRE prepare a memorandum of understanding and send it to Pensacola City Council for approval.

After the vote, Valderrama told thanked the board.

“We appreciate it,” he said. “We won’t let you down.”