The former home of one of Pensacola’s only segregated public parks could once again open to the community in downtown Pensacola’s Tanyard community.
The vacant lot at Main and Clubb streets between Joe Patti’s Seafood Market and the Community Maritime Park is easily overlooked, as it has sat empty for a half-century along downtown Pensacola’s historic waterfront.
For much of the mid-20th century, the site known as Bruce Beach was celebrated as a neighborhood gathering place and was once home to the city’s only municipal pool. During the era of segregation, the area was frequented by Pensacola’s black citizens, who were prohibited from enjoying most other public beaches and recreation facilities throughout the city as a result of racist, government-imposed Jim Crow laws.
But now, two men are suing the city and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC, in an effort that could jeopardize nearly $19 million in funding that would allow the property to be restored and put back to public use. The lawsuit, filed by Dan Lindemann and Jerry Holzworth, is asking the court to void the lease between the city and FWC for the planned Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery & Enhancement Center, which would redevelop the site and restore public access to the beach for the first time since the 1970s.
The city and FWC have filed a motion to dismiss the suit, challenging Lindemann and Holzworth’s standing, and on Monday, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, or CRA — a city agency and special district in which the Bruce Beach site is located — voted to join the motion to dismiss.
In their dismissal, the CRA echoed the FWC and City’s responses, attesting that the plaintiffs, “have no standing in court because they are not parties of the lease and haven’t pleaded special injury.” Additionally, the CRA reiterated the position by FWC that only the involved parties have the option to declare the lease void.
While both Lindemann and Holzworth are city residents, neither of the men are residents of the Tanyard neighborhood, within which Bruce Beach resides. Property records do show that Holzworth recently purchased vacant property on West Zaragoza Street in 2017.
At Monday’s CRA meeting, the only people to speak in opposition to the hatchery were Lindemann and Holzworth, along with their attorney, Adam Cobb of Pensacola-based law firm Emmanuel Sheppard & Condon.
Among those who spoke in support of the redevelopment project were Tony McCray and Dr. Marion Williams, two longtime leaders in Pensacola’s African-American community. McCray, whose father was instrumental in reviving the nearby Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood, served on the community planning committee for the hatchery; Williams, a former Escambia County School District administrator and local historian, has been involved in local environmental issues since at least the 1970s.
“Bruce Beach is a black heritage site that has a rich history as an African-American waterfront and recreational venue,” said McCray. “Bruce Beach served as a recreational site, so yes, I think you should act to dismiss this [lawsuit].”
McCray advocated for the subsequent benefits and attention the redevelopment of the site would bring to the community.
“This project, with the dollars that have been spent already, will make this research facility a one of a kind place in the country,” said McCray. “That brings attention to the historical significance of the site, which gives us as a community to come together to determine how we can truly celebrate the heritage of the African-American community at Bruce Beach.”
As part of the public redevelopment of Bruce Beach, the project will provide funding for the restoration of the natural environment surrounding the waterfront property, construction of walking trails and a boardwalk over a historic creek connecting the property to the Maritime Park, and will showcase the history of the property and Tanyard neighborhood through a collaboration with the University of West Florida Historic Trust’s Maritime Heritage Trail.
Dr. Williams echoed the sentiments by McCray. Williams, a former local school administrator and black historian, is the great-nephew of Spencer Bibbs, a celebrated local African-American who was born a slave to a black woman and her master. The Escambia County School District’s Spencer Bibbs Center located in the Eastside neighborhood is named in his honor.
“I favor dismissal of this lawsuit,” said Williams. “It is paramount that we have this project and have it at the current site. We would like to see progress finally at Bruce Beach. The science of this project is sound.”
Williams went on to describe the maritime history of the site, describing the diversity of culture and industries that have called the Tanyard home, including the famed Panton-Leslie Trading Post, the fishing industry, and shipping industry.
“I learned to swim at Bruce Beach,” Williams added. “I learned to do a lot of things at Bruce Beach and I support this. I don’t think we need to change anything in the middle of the stream and lose $18.8 million. I think that’s foolish.”