Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee gets its bearings

Mayor Ashton Hayward’s Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee (URAC) met this past Friday for the second time and heard from a panel of VIPs who represented organizations with stakes in developing Pensacola’s urban core. This second meeting was devoted to gathering information about existing projects, programs and properties within the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). The seven-member URAC is charged with providing the Mayor by the end of June with an action plan outlining specific projects for continuing to rebuild downtown, the waterfront and surrounding neighborhoods.

The five panelists were Collier Merrill, Community Maritime Park Associates, Inc. (CMPA) chair, Lois Benson, Emerald Coast Utilities Authority (ECUA) board member, Kim Kimbrough, Downtown Improvement Board (DIB) director, Scott Luth, Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce senior vice president, and Rick Harper, director of the University of West Florida’s Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development. Chuck Tessier, of Tessier Associates, of Asheville, NC, the self-described “executive on loan to the committee,” acted as moderator for the panel presentations.

CMPA chair Collier Merrill started things off with an outline of the building progress and expected events at the Community Maritime Park. The events included an opening day ceremony for the Park, complete with fireworks on June 9, the Blue Wahoos baseball opening game on April 5, and the expected completion of the Park’s outdoor 5000 person capacity amphitheater on May 15. Merrill explained that the amphitheater would be the site for concerts and theater productions and other like events. He explained that the stadium, in the off-season, would not be used for such events because that would entail “putting up a $20,000 stage and require the expense of protecting the baseball field grass.” Instead, Merrill suggested that the stadium would be available for such things as weddings. Merrill then spoke about the rest of the sites at the park that are available for commercial development. He said that none of the nine properties have been leased yet and that “no one is beating down the doors” to develop the sites.

ECUA board member Lois Benson spoke next. Benson’s remarks focused on the ECUA Main Street sewage plant property and the city administration’s recent attempt to limit the use of the property through amendments to the city’s Land Development Code (LDC). At a City Council Committee of the Whole meeting and at the following council meeting on January 12, Mayor Hayward had recommended that the council pass what amounted to a complete overhaul of and expansion of the boundaries of the land covered by Section 12-2-22 of the LDC. Amended Section 12-2-22, which would be renamed the Maritime Redevelopment District overlay, would encompass the ECUA Main Street sewage plant property. The recommended amendments to the district tended to restrict the use of the ECUA property to residences. No such restrictions exist for the property in the current LDC. Both Benson and ECUA attorney Bradley Odom appeared at the city council meeting in January to object to, not only the proposed amendments, but also the inadequate notice provided to the ECUA by the mayor and the city’s planning department regarding the amendments. Since the January council meeting, Benson said that the ECUA has met with city staff and that they are trying to work out new solutions for allowed development of the ECUA property.

On Friday, Benson told the members of URAC that regarding the amendments to Section 12-2-22, “the ECUA board is unanimously opposed to the overlay district changes as too restrictive.” Speaking as a long-time resident of downtown, Benson said that she believes that the ECUA property needs an economic engine, like a culinary school, in addition to residences and thereby could be developed for mixed use. She said she sees the property as a bridge to connect the east and west sides of the city and the DeVilliers neighborhood with the waterfront. Benson also suggested to the committee that it should be mindful that onerous restrictions on land use as was originally proposed by the mayor can serve to “limit the vision of a developer.”

The director of the DIB, Kim Kimbrough next made a presentation to the committee about the mission and successes of the DIB. He explained that the DIB was more focused on marketing and providing services to businesses downtown as opposed to the CRA which has a brick and mortar mandate. In addition, he said the DIB concentrates its efforts toward making downtown more pedestrian friendly and creating and managing downtown events like Gallery Night and the Pelican Drop.

Scott Luth, who is head of economic development at the Pensacola Chamber talked to the committee about two Chamber projects within the CRA: the Technology Park on 9th Ave across from the Civic Center and the Chamber’s small business incubator project. Luth explained that the Tech Park’s infrastructure had been completed and the Chamber was moving into the marketing phase for the Park. The other economic development project is the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (CIE), a partnership between the Chamber and Pensacola State College. Luth explained that the CIE targets small businesses in their early stages of growth and then helps them develop by providing the new companies with shared office space and services and business consulting. The CIE is located in the PSC building at the corner of Garden and DeVilliers streets.

The last speaker was Rick Harper, Director of UWF’s Haas Business Research and Economic Development Center. Using a series of slides showing demographic and economic statistics, Harper presented the committee with an overall view of where the Pensacola area has been economically and where it appears headed in the future. The good news was that Pensacola is well-positioned to take advantage of growth toward city living; the bad news is that high wage jobs appear to be leaving the area. However, according to Harper, one of the sales categories that is growing is tourism and leisure, which he expects to continue.  Harper suggested that the committee go with the trend and focus on tourism in developing projects for its action plan.

Before the panel discussion had begun, Tessier had reminded the members of the committee that all of the city’s past urban development plans and all presentations made to the committee are posted on the committee’s webpage. Tessier urged the URAC members to do their homework and become familiar with the planning and development history for Pensacola as reflected in the posted documents. He said these first few meetings were like the wide end of a funnel where the committee would be gathering as much information as possible about the CRA and then at later meetings the committee would narrow the input to reach a conclusion. The next meeting of the URAC is scheduled for March 23, and will concentrate on gathering information about marketing Pensacola.