Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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Port Puzzle

By Jeremy Morrison

Pensacola’s port looks about the same today as it did a few years ago when Mayor Ashton Hayward convened an advisory committee to study the facility. That is to say, it remains a rectangular slab of untapped potential at risk of becoming an industrial ghost haunting an otherwise revitalized downtown district.

Or, in the parlance of the 2011 mayoral advisory committee report: “Current Port activity is one of lagging economic performance given the size and location of the land area.”

“Our findings were generally that it was a very much underutilized public asset,” explained John Myslak, who chaired the committee. “You know, 50 acres of prime waterfront real estate.”

Six years later, fortunes have not improved for the port. It has suffered financially — revenues have effectively been cut in half, dropping more than a million dollars since 2012—and well-intended attempts to find a niche have fallen flat.

This has some folks, like Pensacola City Council Vice President Sherri Myers, concerned.

“There’s just no vision being implemented for the port that I can see,” Myers said. “We need to come up with a vision for the port, a strategy for operating the port.”

The Bones Are Good
The 2011 port advisory committee’s mission was pretty straightforward: to study the facility and make recommendations about how best “to maximize the Port property’s benefit to the community.”

A few things were apparent from the get-go. Pensacola was not positioned to compete well—lacking the geographical advantage and comparable infrastructure—with Florida’s 14 other ports, or the one next door in Mobile, Ala.

“It was never going to be a full-on container port,” Myslak said.

And the port’s status quo of servicing industrial tenants sporting neither impressive lease fees or payroll numbers probably wasn’t going to cut it either.

“Your piles of gravel, cement or asphalt,” Myslak said, “that wasn’t the highest and best use.”

The committee’s assessment was clinical, if grim. Port operations were eating up its meager revenue, and capital improvement commitments exceeded any reserves. No improvement was visible on the horizon.

The advisory committee made a number of recommendations. For starters, leases with current industrial clients, like Cemex, needed to be renegotiated “to accommodate new opportunities for the city should they arise.” The city should actively pursue the high-tech industry and offshore industry servicing oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. And also it should streamline the processes required to execute leases or agreements.

There were other suggestions, too. Like securing alternative sources of funding for infrastructure needs and hiring a consultant to explore viable options for the property. The committee also suggested that city staff consider “overall community benefit, enhanced quality of life issues, historical and tourism significance, and revenue spin-off and multipliers” when negotiating future leases.

The recommendation that city officials ran with involved pursuing clients working the oil fields in the Gulf. For a while, it looked as if the port’s main tenant, Offshore Inland, was partnering with Houston-based DeepFlex in a deal that would net Pensacola 200 jobs and $50 million in capital investment, but that dream fell through as the global oil market tanked.

“Lessons learned from that. You don’t want to tie yourself to a commodities market,” Myslak said. “That’s not what we want. We want the private industry that’s employing a lot of people at a decent wage and paying a decent lease fee.”

When Myslak looks at Pensacola’s port today, he sees a facility suffering from some of the same ills his committee noted in 2011.

“The bottom line is, it could certainly be doing better,” the committee chairman said.

And while the committee’s report is six years old, he still views it as a relevant template.

“Might need a little tweaking,” Myslak said, “but the bones are good.”

It Needs A Plan
Last year, the Pensacola City Council seemed poised to jump on another of the port advisory committee’s recommendations. The council went so far as to allocate $100,000 to hire a consultant to explore the port’s potential but never followed through.

“I tried to get the council to hire a consultant to give us an idea of what is the highest and best use of these 52 acres,” Myers recalled. “They decided they didn’t want to continue down that road.”

More recently, talk about the port has centered on the notion of possibly relocating a Florida Fish and Wildlife fish hatchery planned for Bruce Beach to the port. City administration, meanwhile, has been promoting the concept of partnering with the Institute for Machine and Human Cognition and pursuing a high-tech research facility, which is an exciting concept but hinges on a grant from Triumph Gulf Coast.

“I think these are good ideas to explore, but there again, you have to think, ‘Are these the highest and best uses for that?’” Myers asked. “Maybe it is. That is something that needs to be explored more in depth.”

The councilwoman said that she doesn’t intend to breach the subject of hiring a consultant to assess issues at the port again. Council didn’t seem to have the appetite for the discussion.

“Not unless somebody else brings it up,” she said. “I feel like I’ve already tried.”

Councilman Brian Spencer recalls the council taking a pass and kicking the $100,000 back to the mayor’s office to handle hiring a port consultant.

“We never tapped into it,” Spencer said, adding that he had yet to hear anything out of the mayor’s office.

Both Spencer and Myers painted a picture of a city administration who had yet to communicate their vision for the port.

“We need some leadership of some kind,” Myers said. “I’m just not seeing it.”

While Inweekly’s requests to interview Hayward or Port Director Amy Miller for this article went unanswered, Assistant City Administrator Keith Wilkins did offer some insight into Pensacola’s current calculus concerning the port.

“At this point, the mayor’s office is going to do a study that’s really geared toward ‘what’s the best use of that land?’” Wilkins said.

As for the IHMC-prospects, Wilkins called it a “great opportunity” but cautioned against viewing that thread as tea leaves for the port.

“The IHMC thing, at this point, is separate from any overall port planning,” he said, allowing that the path was one to be explored. “Obviously, we’d love for the whole port to turn into a giant high-tech research facility.”

Wilkins said that the mayor is acutely aware that the port is in need of direction.

“It needs a plan,” Wilkins said.

An Open Canvas
Councilman Spencer wants to reframe the conversation concerning the port, really redefine the vocabulary. He doesn’t like the term ‘port’ and its associations or implications.

“So we no longer even call it ‘the port,’” Spencer said, suggesting instead using the description “50 acres of waterfront property.”

He views the port in its current state as a drag on the city’s downtown. He doesn’t like its industrial noise and emissions and sees warehouses as “metal, pre-engineered, oversized blemishes on our city’s waterfront.”

“I think we’ll always be in direct conflict with a desirable mixed-use downtown,” Spencer said of the port. “It already is incompatible with its proximity to our national historic district.”

The councilman said the city should be considering an array of options for the property, instead of focusing on its current incarnation. He sees the property as an opportunity waiting to be fully realized, and city asset not fully capitalized on.

The councilman also noted that the port is public property and assured that public access would be a feature of future discussions.

“This is such an opportunity to ensure that the public would have access to this 50 acres, [with] greenways and promenades,” Spencer said. “I do not see one foot of that water’s edge being for private use. Great cities allow access to the water’s edge.”

As for the rest of it, who knows.

“I think it’s an open canvas,” Spencer said.