Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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Outtakes—Post Up, Ashton

By Rick Outzen

On July 14, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward made news with his announcement that the city is in the early stages of building a new arena to attract the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans developmental league team.

The mayor mentioned a public-private partnership would build a facility to replace the Pensacola Bay Center, which has required a million-dollar annual subsidy from its owner, Escambia County. Hayward’s announcement was good news for the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), which has struggled to balance its budget as detention and public safety costs escalate.

We are hearing that the hotel industry is willing to agree to have an additional penny added to the bed tax to help fund the arena. The county could demolish the Bay Center, sell the land to the University of West Florida for its downtown campus, and save the subsidy.

How much money would Mayor Hayward put into the public-private partnership to build the new arena? He hasn’t said. However, his CFO, Dick Barker, has told the City Council that the mayor plans to borrow $20 million using Local Option Sales Tax revenue as collateral.

Mayor Hayward has already excluded the BCC from the early negotiations. He didn’t bring any county commissioners to New Orleans when he presented his proposal to team management on June 7. The mayor has explained to his supporters that billionaire Tom Benson, who owns the Pelicans and the New Orleans Saints, wants to work only with him on the deal, not the county.

The NBA deal gives Pensacola’s strong mayor an opportunity to deliver a major agreement without county help. All four possible sites for the arena are within the city limits: Port of Pensacola, the former ECUA treatment plant site on Main Street, which is owned by the Studers, the current Pensacola Bay Center site, and the Community Maritime Park.

The Port of Pensacola and Community Maritime Park are owned by the city so Mayor Hayward would have some leverage in working with the private investor group headed by hotelier Jay Patel. The city already owns the county’s other major sports facility, Blue Wahoo Stadium, where the Cincinnati Reds Double A affiliate and the UWF Argos play their home games.

The lure of having two major sports affiliates is very enticing to the mayor. He told the daily newspaper, “We would be in rare company to have two of the largest sports entities in the world in Pensacola with Major League Baseball and the NBA. ”

So, Mayor Hayward, you have the ball. Now post up and take the rock to the hole.