The Pensacola City Council could decide the fate of a long-planned $19 million marine research center next week — or they could ask voters to decide later this year.
Councilwoman Sherri Myers is asking her fellow council members to either declare the city’s lease with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission void, or failing that, to schedule a public referendum on the project in August. Myers’ push comes after state officials this week cancelled a bid solicitation for construction of the facility, citing pending litigation from Pensacola residents Dan Lindemann and Jerry Holzworth, who are suing the city and FWC over the project.
“If the council does not declare the lease void, I believe the citizens should be given an opportunity to make the decision,” Myers said Thursday.
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 long-vacant Bruce Beach property and establish a fully-contained fish hatchery and marine research facility. The project would also restore public access to the property for the first time in more than 30 years, with pedestrian paths, a bridge over Washerwoman’s Creek, and historical markers.
Council members approved the lease with the FWC in 2014, and after eight public meetings, approved the site plan for the project at the Bruce Beach site in 2016.
But the project, which once enjoyed broad community support, has become controversial since developer Quint Studer — who owns property across the street from the site — reversed his position and pulled his support for the hatchery last October. Studer has since funded an astroturfing campaign on social media using the “Move the Hatchery” Facebook page, which originally presented itself as a grassroots effort before Studer acknowledged sponsorship of the page.
Not long after Studer’s reversal, Lindemann and Holzworth filed suit against the City and FWC, alleging that FWC missed a deadline to begin construction and that the Bruce Beach lease should thus be voided. That litigation is ongoing, but the city and state have argued that the lease remains intact and that Lindemann and Holzworth don’t have standing to sue. Meanwhile, opponents of the project have argued that the hatchery should be moved to another site at either the Port of Pensacola or the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge.
It’s not clear whether Myers is seeking an up-or-down vote on the Bruce Beach site or wants voters to choose from several possible sites. Myers didn’t provide specific ballot language as part of her agenda item.
It’s also not clear whether or not moving the hatchery to another site is even an option. Around $1 million has already been spent to design and engineer the project for the Bruce Beach site. Asked whether it would be feasible to relocate the project without endangering its funding, FWC spokeswoman Susan Smith would only say that the agency isn’t currently considering alternate locations.