Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday November 22nd 2017

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Port Needs a Plan

By Rick Outzen and Duwayne Escobedo

The Port of Pensacola is dying. Its four major revenue sources dropped nearly 30 percent from FY 2012-FY 2016, according to the city’s budget documents.

Three of the primary revenue sources are a function of ship traffic at the port–wharfage, which dropped 19. 7 percent over the four years; storage down 32. 6 percent; and dockage down 37.7 percent. The top revenue source is property rental fees, which dropped 24.7 percent from FY 2012-FY 2016.

The financial outlook for the port isn’t any better for the fiscal year that started on Oct. 1. The Pensacola City Council in May terminated the lease agreement with Offshore Inland for Warehouse 9, which was supposed to house the DeepFlex joint venture that was to create 200 manufacturing jobs and revitalize the port operations.

Three years ago, Offshore Inland Marine & Oilfield Services announced a permanent relocation from Mobile to Pensacola. The company expected to add at least 35 administrative positions and up to 80 fabrication positions, averaging $80,000 a year. In July 2014, Mayor Ashton Hayward announced the DeepFlex deal and touted that it would create 200 jobs and generate $52 million in capital investment for the city.

The council vote in May signaled the official admission that those jobs weren’t coming to Pensacola. It also left the Port of Pensacola with only two tenants, CEMEX Ready Mix and Offshore Inland Marine.

The mayor’s office failed to mention the decline in tenants in the FY 2018 proposed budget. The budget documents showed the port claimed that it had retained four major customers but failed to mention that two of them, Sine Qua Non-Holdings and Siddiqi Investments, were merely renting the parking lot near Commendencia Slip.

The FY 2018 proposed budget estimates port revenues will drop 21.4 percent below the FY 2017 budget. If the City meets that FY 2018 budget estimate, the port revenues will have fallen $803,000 since FY 2012.

Research Facility
While he has not held a press conference to outline how he plans to turn around the port, Mayor Ashton Hayward has announced that he is seeking a $15-million Triumph Gulf Coast grant to renovate Warehouse 4 into a marine research, development and education facility.

The proposed project is a regional partnership that includes the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, University of West Florida, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Naval Sea Systems Command-Panama City and the City of Pensacola. According to information sent to the Escambia Board of County Commissioners, the facility will provide research for military or commercial autonomous vessels, product development and commercialization to market; intelligent subsea structures, environmental and ecosystem assessment with classroom and laboratories supporting those activities.

The building, which has been unused for years, needs to be renovated to accommodate the research space, classrooms, laboratories, manufacturing areas, storage and offices in modern recycled containers for mobility, flexibility and reusable workspace.

The 45,000 sq. ft. warehouse may also support marine research vessels for both offshore and inshore operations.  The FWC Enforcement Division operations may relocate from the landing site of the new Pensacola Bay Bridge, according to the city’s website.

Dr. Wade Jeffrey, a distinguished UWF professor and Director of the Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation, told Inweekly that a facility of the waterfront has been his longtime dream, but he admitted that it might not happen if the City of Pensacola doesn’t receive the Triumph grant.

“I think it would be great,” he said. “The desire to be on the waterfront in a downtown facility has never gone away. We’re just waiting for the right opportunity to take advantage of it.”

He said the IHMC is lead on the project, and he praised IHMC research scientist David Fries.

“He is outstanding,” said Jeffrey. “He’s been building bigger and better underwater instruments for years.”

A downtown marine research facility would help Jeffrey study red tide and invasive species, such as lionfish.

“Being downtown would give us a facility on the waterfront where we would have access to maintain specimens and run experiments,” said Jeffrey. “Not much is known about the dynamics of (the red tide) organism.”

He continued, “This partnership is technology driven.  Maybe there is a faster, better way to monitor and detect this organism of interest and respond quicker and faster. Instead of taking days to confirm a red tide outbreak maybe we can come up with something that can find out in a matter of hours.”

Last week, City Council President Brian Spencer announced he would like the council to pursue moving the Florida Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery and Enhancement Center to the port. He placed several items on the agenda to see if it’s feasible.

He asked the council to explore buyout options with the Florida Department of Transportation regarding the port’s administration building.  According to Spencer, the port only has three employees in the building. He believes it could be leased to the FWC for its enforcement operations and hatchery employees and generate revenue for the port. The port has empty buildings that could house hatchery operations, too.

Unfortunately, City Attorney Lysia Bowling recommended the items be withdrawn because of a lawsuit filed regarding the location of the hatchery at Bruce Beach. Spencer agreed to do so but has not dropped the matter.

Meanwhile, the future of the Port of Pensacola remains in limbo, waiting for Mayor Hayward to announce his vision for the city enterprise.