For the second time in four months, Pensacola city councilwoman Sherri Myers has proposed voiding the lease for a $19 million marine research center in downtown Pensacola, then pulled the item from the council’s agenda.
Myers had placed two items on the council’s agenda this week: one calling for the council to void the lease with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission for the planned Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery and Enhancement Center, and another pushing for a public vote on the project if the council wasn’t willing to end the lease.
But Myers pulled both items at an agenda conference Monday, citing a recent Pensacola News Journal report that Mayor Ashton Hayward had met with developer Quint Studer, whose objections to the facility’s planned location at the city’s long-neglected Bruce Beach sparked new controversy over the project. The News Journal reported over the weekend that Hayward told Studer he would be “open” to relocating the project to another side, as Studer has advocated.
“When I asked that these two items be placed on the agenda, I was not aware that the mayor was having meetings with certain individuals to discuss relocating the fish hatchery,” Myers said Monday. “And I’m very pleased to learn that he has been engaged in those kind of discussions. So for that reason I’m going to pull these items for right now, to see how that process evolves and hopefully works out.”
It’s not clear whether or not Hayward’s meeting with Studer was simply a one-time meeting or part of some kind of ongoing discussion. Hayward’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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 Studer — who owns property across the street from the site — pulled his support for the hatchery last October and began advocating for its relocation. 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.
It’s unclear 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.
Not long after Studer’s reversal, Pensacola residents Dan Lindemann and Jerry 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.