Spencer, Myers look to quash lease for $19 million hatchery project

Two Pensacola city council members are leading the charge to stop the $19 million Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery & Enhancement Center from moving forward at the long-vacant city-owned property known as Bruce Beach.

Council president Brian Spencer and councilwoman Sherri Myers are asking the council to declare the state’s lease of the property null and void, arguing that construction on the project hasn’t commenced on schedule.

That’s the same argument that developer Quint Studer, who owns property adjacent to the site, has made in recent weeks. Both city and state officials contend that the lease is valid and the construction process is underway, with permits secured. State officials last week advertised for bids for construction of the project.

The overgrown Bruce Beach site has sat vacant for decades. (Special to The Pulse)

At issue is the Bruce Beach property — a small patch of potentially-contamined land next door to a tank farm, once used for shipbuilding and later as a recreational area for black Pensacolians during segregation. The site has been vacant since the 1970s, when safety concerns prompted the closure of the recreational area and officials planned to use the site for a tuna cannery that never materialized.

Since then, the property has become overgrown, used as a homeless camp and dumping ground. The $18.8 million budget for the project — fully funded by fines paid by BP in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill — the project budget includes funding to clean up the property and construct a marine research center, with plans to restore public access to Bruce Beach for the first time in decades. In addition to walking paths, a pedestrian bridge over Washerwoman’s Creek would connect to the Community Maritime Park next door.

Conceptual rendering of the planned Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery & Enhancement Center. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

Both Myers and Spencer voted in support of the project when it was originally approved by the city council back in 2011. Myers changed positions by 2014, voting against the lease for the project, though Spencer supported it at the time. Studer also advocated for the project, writing a public letter of support in 2014.

“Even if the hatchery does not work out, the worst-case scenario is that the city has remediated land which is safe and open to the public for enjoyment and learning,” Studer said at the time. “This is far better than what is in place today.”

Spencer has suggested moving the hatchery to the Port of Pensacola, though it’s unclear whether that’s a viable option. More than $1 million has been spent on design and engineering fees to tailor the project to the Bruce Beach site.

“At this time, we are not considering other locations as our contract is valid,” Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Susan Smith said last week.

Bruce Beach. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Nonetheless, Spencer is asking council members to explore buying out the Florida Department of Transportation’s interest in the Port’s administration building, which was constructed using FDOT dollars in 1999. It’s unclear whether that building would be suitable to house the marine research center, though there likely wouldn’t be enough land on the port site to accommodate the project’s wetlands component and other public amenities.

“Relocation is my goal,” Spencer said Wednesday. “I never supported the diminished use of Bruce Beach for a hatchery unless it created a significant number of jobs and was the funding vehicle that provided exciting, attractive infrastructure additions and improvements that could be enjoyed by the public. Fast forward to today versus yesterday’s promises … the jobs aren’t there, and the project’s public amenities are a fraction of what we anticipated. Today’s bid package deviates too significantly from the initial FWC sales pitch.”

The Bruce Beach property, seen here in 2011, abuts the TransMontaigne tank farm. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

Spencer encouraged Mayor Ashton Hayward, a strong proponent of building the project on the Bruce Beach site, to join him in supporting relocation.

“Our Mayor should jump on the voided lease status and secure a new location at the port,” Spencer said. “He still can be the champion of this project. In fact, I think this is an ideal time for him to show strong leadership skills while exercising his ability to maneuver through the gauntlet of bureaucracy.”

Pensacola city council members are set to discuss the hatchery lease at their regular meeting on November 9.