Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday December 12th 2017

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Outtakes—Civic Center Inertia

By Rick Outzen

For nearly two decades, the Escambia Board of County Commissioners has debated what to do about the Pensacola Bay Center. Each discussion has ended with the commissioners kicking the can down the road past the next election.

When the Pensacola Civic Center opened in January 1985, its director, Larry Updike, bragged to the media, “Technically, the community has no money in this building whatsoever.”

Updike was correct. The county taxpayers didn’t pay for the $23-million facility. Florida Senate President W.D. Childers inserted $12.5 million in the state budget for it, and the county bonded the rest to be paid back with tourism tax dollars. The bonds were scheduled to retire in 2012.

A convention center and exhibit hall were to be built south of the civic center on the corner of Chase Street and Ninth Avenue, but the BCC ignored that phase of the development. In the ensuing years, the facility hosted sold-out concerts for Elton John, Janet Jackson, AC/DC, David Bowie and Van Halen. The Miami Heat played preseason games there. The facility was also home to the Pensacola Tornados, Barracudas and Flyers, as well as several professional ice hockey franchises.

In reviewing newspaper archives, it appears that the only year the civic center was profitable was 1997, the first year the Pensacola Ice Pilots played in the arena. In 1999, County Commissioner Mike Whitehead was upset the facility was scheduled to lose $350,000.

That year, the Pensacola Chamber, armed with a study done by Conventions, Sports and Leisure International of Minneapolis, recommended that a convention center and full-service hotel be built in on South Palafox Street with county funds. The proposal went nowhere.

When the losses climbed to $575,000 annually in 2001, Commissioners Tom Banjanin and Willie Junior suggested selling the building to the city for a dollar as a replacement for Bayfront Auditorium. The city wasn’t interested.

By 2010, the civic center’s losses had skyrocketed. From 2006 to 2010, the losses had jumped 98 percent, increasing from $820,461 to $1.6 million. The BCC put the center on the market offering to sell it for $10 million. They received no offers.

The commissioners hired Chicago-based C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc. to conduct a study to determine how to reduce the subsidy and grow revenues. The study recommended dumping ice hockey and building an exhibit hall.  Again, nothing happened.

In January 2017, Pensacola Sports, armed with another study, proposed a sports tourism complex that could be built on the site of the Bay Center. Hotelier Jay Patel has taken the study and proposed a $65-million new arena and field house. The BCC is asking for other proposals.

My prediction is nothing will happen.