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Pensacola is one of two finalists to land the New Orleans Pelicans’ new NBA G League team, an opportunity that could bring millions of dollars in outside investment along with stronger ties to one of Pensacola’s key feeder markets.

This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky thing we’re chasing. Pensacola is one of just six communities that were specifically invited to compete for the G League opportunity by the Benson family, which owns the Pelicans. The fact that Pensacola is on their radar is a testament to the progress that the city has made in recent years.

If local leaders can work out all the details, Pensacola could join a select group of cities that offer residents and visitors three minor league sports teams, along with a symphony orchestra, art museums and galleries, and historic district, all located in a vibrant, growing downtown.

Counterintuitively, though, the city’s daily newspaper’s coverage of the opportunity has been consistently negative, including a bizarre fixation on the “private” meetings that Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, County Commissioner Lumon May, and other local leaders have held with Pelicans officials.

The Pensacola Bay Center could play host to two minor league sports teams if the New Orleans Pelicans establish their new G League team in the city. (Pensacola Ice Flyers/Special to The Pulse)

At The Pulse, we’re among the strongest advocates for Florida’s government-in-the-Sunshine laws in the region. We comb through public records every day. But let’s be clear: the New Orleans Pelicans haven’t asked for any public money, and as Hayward said this week, these are very preliminary meetings. Despite the News Journal‘s sensationalist reporting, neither Hayward, May, nor any other public official has the power to commit substantial public dollars behind closed doors. Any public financing for a new arena, upgrades to the Pensacola Bay Center, or any other part of this recruitment effort would have to be debated and approved by city council and county commission members in public meetings — if the effort even gets that far.

The executives at the corporate-owned News Journal aren’t stupid, though. They know that. And that’s how we know that their outrage is false; their consistently-negative coverage driven by a loyalty to out-of-touch elitists rather than to the truth or to the readers they serve.

The 19-acre property, located at 401 West Government Street, is the largest vacant property in downtown Pensacola and is owned by developer Quint Studer. The site is one of the sites proposed by developers for a potential arena, convention center, and hotel. (Emerald Coast Utilities Authority/Special to the Pulse)

The News Journal‘s latest report is perhaps their most ridiculous: on Sunday, the paper devoted nearly its entire front page to a bizarre story questioning the economic benefit — or lack thereof — of an association with the National Basketball Association and the family which owns both the Pelicans and the New Orleans Saints.

“What’s still unclear is whether the city hosting the NBA affiliate would translate to actual economic benefits for the region,” the newspaper wrote Sunday.

We’re not sure who the News Journal is using as sources these days, but it’s abundantly clear that the establishment of a new NBA-affiliated basketball team in Pensacola would be a major economic win for the city and the region.

Just ask those in Oshkosh, Wis., which was selected as the home of the Wisconsin Herd G League team earlier this year. “You’re looking at tens of millions of [dollars in] economic development spin-off,” said Rob Kleman, the senior vice president of economic development for the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. A new arena, developed through a public-private partnership, is currently under construction.

“The arena will not only provide a new home for the Herd, but will be a true catalyst for downtown Oshkosh that will create jobs and have a significant economic development impact on the entire region,” said Mark R. Hogan, secretary and CEO of WEDC, Wisconsin’s lead economic development organization.

Where was the News Journal‘s concern during Quint Studer’s effort to bring minor league baseball to Pensacola and the development of Blue Wahoos Stadium, built largely at taxpayer expense?

Both have been a tremendous success, with the stadium winning numerous awards and the Wahoos ranking in the top two in Southern League attendance every year since the team’s debut in 2012. There’s no reason to think an NBA-affiliated basketball team, backed by the Benson family, couldn’t have the same success.

And remember — unlike Studer and the Wahoos, the Pelicans haven’t asked for any public money. In fact, the Benson family has indicated their willingness to invest part of their $2.2 billion sports empire right here in Pensacola; or in Shreveport, if we don’t want their money.

But sadly, there are those in Pensacola who do not want outside investment — who see it as a threat to their power — and who have influence with the News Journal‘s executives and editors.

The Pensacola Bay Center may need upgrades to update the 34 year-old, 10,000 seat arena for use by both the New Orleans Pelicans G League team and the Pensacola Ice Flyers. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

At first, the News Journal ignored the opportunity altogether, remaining silent while media in the other six cities who were invited to compete covered the story. Then, when they did choose to dedicate column inches, their coverage has been uniformly negative, sensationalist, and dramatic.

Unfortunately, all of it is being read by the decision-makers who are vetting Pensacola and Shreveport, trying to decide in which community they should invest millions of private dollars.

We trust that the Pelicans and the Benson family are smart enough to see that the corporate-controlled News Journal doesn’t speak for all Pensacolians; that Pensacola is a city that’s growing, thriving, and open for business; full of citizens who are excited about the future and who welcome outside investment.

As the newspaper industry continues to struggle, the path forward for local newspapers is often unclear, and the News Journal and parent company Gannett are no exception. We don’t have all the answers. But we do know that if the News Journal continues to allow advertisers to influence its editorial and news coverage, readers will continue to lose trust and seek out alternatives.

Our advice to the News Journal is simple: stick to the facts, focus on quality local reporting, and protect your independence. It’s the only way forward.

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