Less than a day after wrapping up another successful Pensacon event this weekend, organizers warned Monday that “there may not be a Pensacon 2017,” citing issues with SMG, the company that manages the Pensacola Bay Center.
Now, the ball appears to be back in Pensacon’s court.
Social media erupted on Monday as organizers of the pop culture convention posted what they called an “open letter to Pensacola” in which they aired a number of grievances with SMG, the largest of which was that the company hadn’t yet locked in dates for next year’s event.
“After three successful years of one of the biggest events in downtown Pensacola, the Pensacola Bay Center placed holds on all dates in February at the facility and blocked us out,” organizers wrote in the letter, encouraging fans to contact Escambia County officials to let them know that “SMG is a problem.”
By late Monday night, nearly 1,000 people had signed a petition calling on local officials to “save Pensacon.”
But the scheduling issue was quickly resolved Monday afternoon, said Bay Center general manager Cyndee Pennington. She explained that concert promoters and the Pensacola Ice Flyers had been holding dates in February 2017, which was preventing Pensacon from announcing dates for next year’s event, which they have traditionally done at the end of each year’s convention.
Pennington said that she spoke with Pensacon CEO Mike Ensley on Sunday and told him that she was working to get one of the weekends freed up. “I talked with the agent and promoter of the concert holds and was told they would let me know on Monday which weekend I could release, and they did,” said Pennington. “I called Mike Ensley and gave him the now-opened dates for 2017.”
Dates have already been reserved for Pensacon for 2018, Pennington said.
“We typically meet with the organizers of Pensacon within two weeks after their event for a debriefing to voice concerns on both sides,” said Pennington. “We also talk about what went well and how can we improve things for next year.”
Pensacon officials haven’t yet said whether they’ll move forward with the February dates offered by SMG on Monday. Their open letter also cited “a long line of issues we’re had with the management of the facility,” including the building itself, the security staff, the food options, crowded vendor areas, and more.
Ensley did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday evening, but in an interview with NewsRadio 1620 on Monday afternoon, Ensley said that Pensacon has had a poor relationship with SMG. “They have a national reputation for being sort of hard to deal with,” he said. “We never wanted to go public and talk about these things, but it’s been a constant issue.”
“I just wonder why we keep this company around,” said Ensley.
The Pensacola Bay Center, built in 1985, is owned by Escambia County and has been operated by SMG since 2004. The company provides management services to more than 240 facilities, including convention centers, arenas, stadiums, and theatres, across the country. Last year, the county extended the current contract with SMG through September 2022.
Ensley’s issues with SMG apparently don’t extend to the Saenger Theatre, which Pensacon has used for some panel discussions and other events. “The Saenger is amazing,” Ensley said. “The people down there … are great.” The Saenger is owned by the City of Pensacola but also managed by SMG.
Speaking separately to NewsRadio 1620 on Monday, Pennington complimented Pensacon and said SMG staff has worked with organizers to improve the event, even going as far as to knock out a permanent wall to create a larger room for Pensacon’s celebrity guests. “It’s a great event for Pensacola and the surrounding area,” Pennington said. “They’ve made a name locally, regionally, nationally, and as someone else has said, internationally.”
Ensley has said that the Bay Center simply isn’t the right venue for Pensacon and has advocated for the construction of a dedicated convention center. “We’re losing lots of business because we can’t move forward with a convention center,” he told NewsRadio 1620 on Monday. “It’s something that’s got to happen, not just for Pensacon, but for the economic opportunities it could bring to us.”
Last year, Pensacon was estimated to have an economic impact of more than $4 million and saw about 20,000 attendees, according to University of West Florida officials. While final numbers aren’t available, Ensley said Monday that this year’s numbers will likely be similar.
In 2015, Pensacon founders Mike Ensley and Ben Galecki announced they were seeking to launch a new convention in 2017, dubbed the Gulf Coast Comic Con.
“The Gulf Coast Comic Con is going to be put on by us, the Pensacon staff,” Galecki said in an August 2015 announcement. “It’s going to be on the Gulf Coast. We’re looking at multiple venues. At the very soonest it will be in 2017.” Galecki added, “Pensacon is not going anywhere.”
Late last night, a post was published on Facebook for the Gulf Coast Comic Con, seemingly hinting at future updates.