An Escambia County commissioner said this week he wants to see the Pensacola Bay Center demolished.
“I think we need to scrap this building right now as it is,” Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson said during Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting in downtown Pensacola.
Robinson’s comments came during a discussion of two different proposals that would impact the future of the Bay Center.
The competing proposals were submitted to county commissioners after Pensacola emerged as the frontrunner to host the New Orleans Pelicans’ new development league team. While the Pelicans have expressed a willingness for the team to play in the Pensacola Bay Center, some improvements would be necessary to meet the league’s minimum standards.
One proposal envisions spending upwards of $100 million on a new arena, field house, and convention center development at the site of the current Bay Center or in the Tanyard neighborhood of downtown Pensacola on an 18-acre property owned by developer Quint Studer. A second proposal calls for spending up to $10 million to modernize the 34-year-old Bay Center.
The second proposal submitted by SMG, the management company overseeing operations at the Bay Center, sets forth two options for commissioners. The first contemplates using $10 million in so-called “Triumph funds” — a pot of more than $300 million stemming from fines collected as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill — to fund both general improvements as well as those necessary to meet NBA G League requirements. The project would include a $1.5 million replacement of the arena’s ice plant, $450,000 for a new arena sound system, more than $1 million for a new arena video board and exterior marquees, $1.3 million to remodel bathrooms and concession areas, as well as $1 million to install acoustic walls, among a host of other improvements.
A second “backstop” option would have SMG pay the $2.25 million needed to bring the facility up to G League standards, including the addition of office space, locker rooms, a new basketball court, goal stanchions, and more — all of which would be included in the first option.
If either proposal by SMG is approved, the management company would oversee the renovation project at no cost to the county, in exchange for a five-year extension of SMG’s management contract.
While the Pelicans have said they are prepared to begin lease negotiations if the capital improvements by SMG move forward, Robinson said Tuesday he doesn’t support the proposal.
“To put more money into the Bay Center, I’m not for that,” Robinson said. “I believe that building [the Bay Center] is on a very short life cycle.”
Robinson, who recently announced his candidacy for Mayor of Pensacola, instead supports building a new $100 million arena and field house development recently proposed by Pensacola Arena Development Partners (PADP). While the proposal was unsolicited by the county, Robinson has long advocated building a convention center in Pensacola.
The PADP project spearheaded by Pensacola hotelier Jay Patel would include building a 6,500-seat arena that’s 35 percent smaller than the Bay Center to host the Pensacola Ice Flyers and potentially the New Orleans Pelicans G League basketball team. The project would also include building an adjacent 100,000 square foot sports tourism field house and events center, along with a 120-150 room hotel and parking garage. The project’s price tag could top $100 million, with developers seeking up to $20 million in federally controlled New Market Tax Credits and $25 million in public funding from Triumph Gulf Coast. The county has already submitted a pre-application to Triumph for the project.
As part of the proposal, PADP is asking the county to agree to a 30-year lease term to pay off the facility’s debt. According to conceptual financial details released by PADP, the county’s anticipated lease payments could range between $3 and $5 million annually during the first five years the facility is open, then between $2.3 million and $4.3 million per year through the remainder of the 30-year lease.
Referring to the Bay Center, Robinson did not provide any supporting information qualifying his comments that the facility is not suitable for continued use. Officials with SMG said the facility’s structural health seems to be in good condition.
“The structure itself we believe is fine,” said Cyndee Pennington, general manager of the Pensacola Bay Center. “We believe the bones [of the Bay Center] are very strong.”
Commissioner Lumon May seemed visibly surprised at the discussion over demolishing the Bay Center, which was fully paid off this year and carries no debt service.
“Where are we getting this concept that we need to tear this building down,” May said in response to Robinson’s comments. “I don’t tear my house down. I remodel my house because I need to upgrade some things.”
“Is tearing the building down the most economical, the most feasible, and best stewardship for the county,” May said.
May asked both county and SMG staff if a structural analysis of the building had been done to determine if the facility was still in good condition. Officials from both the county and SMG stated that no structural analysis or survey of the building has been done.
“No one has given me any evidence that we need to tear down a building that is structurally sound, that has withstood hurricanes,” May stated. “This is still an evacuation site.”
SMG Director of Business Operation Evan Holmes was at the meeting Tuesday to speak on behalf of SMG, which manages more than 233 facilities around the world.
“If the bones of the facility are good, we can do any of the state-of-the-art things that are done in new facilities as long as you have space,” Holmes said.
Holmes stated that SMG has proposed and is undergoing a similar renovation project at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, which is approaching 43-years-old.
“We’re actually going through this exact same process right now in New Orleans,” said Holmes. “The scenario is the same. It’s the process of internal evaluation to understand if the bones are good.”
Holmes went on to reaffirm SMG’s belief that modernizing the facility would be a better public investment over demolishing and building a new facility.
“We feel as though that the higher and better use of the dollars may be reinvestment as oppose to a $65 million facility that, oh, by the way, downsizes your seating capacity, which we believe would not allow you to attract the same amount of events,” he said.
Holmes reiterated that SMG has approached Escambia County in the past to fund modernization improvements to the Bay Center. In 2014, SMG presented options to upgrade the arena’s acoustics, sound system, video scoreboard, seats, lighting, ice equipment, and concession areas. Commissioners voted to not fund those proposals.
Holmes added that SMG believes the county should consider performing a study on the facility’s structural condition.
“I don’t think anybody has done a full structural analysis [of the Bay Center],” Holmes said. “I think that would be prudent. I would recommend it.”
While no decision was made Tuesday on how to move forward with either proposal, further discussions on the facility’s future were moved to January’s Committee of the Whole meeting.