In a radio interview Wednesday morning, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward was sharply critical of the recent effort — led by developer Quint Studer — to derail a long-planned $19 million marine research facility on Pensacola’s downtown waterfront.
“I’m disappointed that a handful of people decided to try and stop the project,” Hayward said, speaking to Andrew McKay of NewsRadio 1620.
Originally approved in 2011, the planned Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery & Enhancement Center would use money from BP’s Deepwater Horizon settlement to clean up the city’s long-vacant Bruce Beach property and establish a state-of-the-art marine research facility. The project would also restore public access to the property for the first time in more, with pedestrian paths, a bridge over Washerwoman’s Creek, and historical markers.
Long a supporter of those planned improvements, Studer — who owns some 18 acres of property adjacent to the project site — pulled that support last month and has since funded a campaign opposing the project, an effort which has included an astroturfing campaign on social media. The “Move the Hatchery” Facebook page initially presented itself as a grassroots effort before Studer acknowledged sponsorship of the page.
“It’s really sad if we’re going to have one person trying to control everything in our community,” Hayward said. “Because the truth of the matter is that our community is extremely excited about where we’re going and what we’re doing.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is managing the project and will operate the completed facility, said this week that the project is on track and moving forward at the Bruce Beach site. The bid package for construction of the facility was released to potential contractors on October 27, though Studer’s Old Stinky LLC has filed a notice of intent to protest the bid invitation.
Hayward also condemned a recent push poll commissioned by Studer, which claimed to show that 56% of Pensacola voters opposed the project. The poll — performed by Pensacola-based firm The Political Matrix — referred to the hatchery as “experimental” and “industrial” and didn’t mention any of the public amenities included in the project.
“All of the questions were designed to be negative,” Hayward said. “Which is unfortunate, because they didn’t put anything about the positives of this project that was vetted by the city, the public, the state, the federal agencies. This is not a scientifically valid poll.”
Hayward said the anti-hatchery effort could affect the city’s relationships with the state government and its agencies, which have been a central focus of Hayward’s administration.
“When you start going down this road, it can damage relationships with the state that have worked tirelessly to help Pensacola over the last seven years,” Hayward said. “I think this picture is bigger than one person. We’re talking about 50,000 people that live in our city, close to 400,000 in our county, and we’re growing, we have the right environment, jobs are coming in here, and all the great things that we’ve done. This picking apart and nit-picking, it’s just childish, and it’s petty.”