Stepping Up Following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ivan, Pensacola hopes to revitalize its economy with a new downtown Maritime Park By Jennifer Ewing
Most recent visitors to the Pensacola area probably paid little heed to the Trillium site south of Main Street. The shrubby parcel of contaminated property, adjacent to downtown and abutting the city’s prized coastline, is clearly outshone by its surroundings. However, in recent years the humble plot of land that many consider an eyesore has become a community focal point, especially for the area’s economic development efforts.
The city of Pensacola purchased the property in 2000, and in September 2009, after two referendums and nine years spent securing funding and permits, the city finally broke ground on Vince Whibbs Sr. Community Maritime Park.
The $70 million public recreational area will include a multi-use stadium, maritime museum, retail shops, restaurants and offices, as well as open green space and beach access. However, for locals, the park will be far greater than the sum of its parts, and groundbreaking has more significance than a ceremonial shovel piercing the soil.
"Pensacola struggles with a lack of trust that something will happen, because in the past nothing has," said Quint Studer, owner of the Pensacola Pelicans minor-league baseball team and a key supporter of the park. "The groundbreaking signifies more than building a multi-use stadium. It signifies that this community is moving forward."
Many city leaders and residents think construction of the park could inspire a complete revitalization of the area. Relocation of the nearby wastewater treatment plant also could help the burgeoning area take flight.
"I truly believe that it will be a renaissance movement for downtown. Old Stinky is moving, and with that, people will want to come to town," said Judge Lacey Collier, chairman of the Community Maritime Park Association.
Added Charles Wood, senior vice president of the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce: "The project will be a huge community asset. I think it will be a showcase for Pensacola and Northwest Florida." Wood said he believes the Maritime Park could attract technology-based entrepreneurs to Pensacola and draw tourists to set up permanent residence in the area.
The park could also bring throngs of sports fans, music lovers, visitors and new students to Pensacola.
"The Maritime Park gives people other things to do while they’re here," Studer said. With seating for 3,500 people, the multi-use stadium will be home to the Pensacola Pelicans and will host other sporting events and concerts. In fact, the new venue should help attract bands that currently stop in Biloxi, Miss., and Orange Wharf, skipping over Pensacola as they continue touring.
"If you look at where we are located, the Maritime Park will make a really nice stop," Studer said.
The University of West Florida expects that the park will enhance its existing programs, particularly in the fields of archaeology, history, environmental studies and maritime studies. UWF President Judy Bense envisions students leading summer programs, creating exhibits and having a greater level of hands-on learning at the Maritime Museum.
"This facility will be a showcase for our programs, and any showcase is going to generate interest," Bense said, adding that she hopes the park will also serve to attract new students.
The architectural firm that designed the initial park plan envisions that the facility will also draw attention to overlooked attributes of the Pensacola area.
"Pensacola is the most historic intact city on the waterfront, and I don’t think people realize the beauty and assets that Pensacola offers," said Paul Ostergaard, senior vice president of Urban Design Associates. Yet while Ostergaard said the Maritime Park offers "a unique blend of uses," he also pointed out that building urban parks and community spaces is becoming increasingly common in the United States.
"Pensacola is actually no different from many other cities," he said, citing Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Birmingham and Jacksonville as cities in the eastern United States that have recently undertaken similar projects.
But the main purpose of the Maritime Park isn’t creating a unique tourist destination.
"The intent is for the people of Pensacola to enjoy it," said Collier, the park association’s chairman. More importantly, he believes, the park should encourage redevelopment downtown while creating a much-needed hub for the community.
"You need a concentration of activity to make any area seem like the place to be," said Pensacola City Councilwoman Megan Pratt. "People like density. As much as we retreat into isolation, there’s something exciting about being where other people are."
The Maritime Park is expected to be an active place of business. In 2005, the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at UWF projected that the park would generate approximately $51 million in revenue per year for the city and create 767 new jobs in Pensacola. In fact, on the day of the groundbreaking, people were already on site, looking for work. Development and construction is expected to provide about 1,700 jobs and $51 million in income to laborers, much needed in a county that had a 9.9 percent unemployment rate in October.
For countless city leaders, these first steps toward change are the realization of what, at times, seemed like an impossible dream.
"We’ve put a catalyst down on the waterfront and released the energy of the city," said Mort O’Sullivan, owner of O’Sullivan Creel Accounting.
O’Sullivan helped to spearhead the Maritime Park project shortly after Hurricane Ivan struck in 2004 when he realized that two of his clients, Quint Studer and retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman had complementary goals in pushing for a maritime museum. Today, O’Sullivan credits the Friends of the Maritime Park campaign, which got the park approved through a referendum with 56 percent of the vote in 2005, for the project’s success.
"If it hadn’t been for that effort and Quint’s willingness to fund it, this never would have happened," he said.
Mayor Emeritus Vince Whibbs, another major proponent of the park, and Fetterman both died during the planning stages.
"Both were dynamic people — visionary," Collier said. "They dared to dream. They didn’t mind stepping up and leading when something good was possible for Pensacola."
The park will be named in honor of Whibbs, while the museum will bear Fetterman’s name. n
March 2000: Pensacola purchases the Trillium site from The Trust for Public Land for $3.63 million.
November 2002: A $40 million plan for the property called the Festival Park is approved by the city of Pensacola.
March 2003: Plans for the Festival Park are overturned through voter referendum.
September 2004: Hurricane Ivan hits, causing approximately $18.1 billion worth of damage in the United States. Pensacola’s Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, located adjacent to the Trillium site, endures a 15-foot storm surge.
January 2005: The Community Maritime Park Association presents plans for a Maritime Park to the Pensacola City Council. Prominent Pensacola residents, including Quint Studer, retired Navy Admiral Jack Fetterman and John Cavanaugh, then president of the University of West Florida, crafted the original plan.
February 2005: The Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida projects that the Maritime Park will generate approximately $51 million in revenue per year.
April 2005: Ray Gindroz of Urban Design Associates unveils the revised conceptual plan for the park after more than 50 presentations and 16 public input sessions.
March 2006: Admiral Fetterman dies.A campaign called "Save Our City" rallies against the proposed park.
May 2006: Mayor Emeritus Vince Whibbs succeeds Fetterman as the third principal of the Community Maritime Park Association but dies days later.
May 2006: Save Our City submits more than 9,000 signed petitions to the city, forcing a referendum.
September 2006: Community Maritime Park is approved by referendum with 56 percent of the vote.
April 2008: With the aid of a $150 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Pensacola breaks ground on a new wastewater treatment plant.
July 2008: UWF President John Cavanaugh, who helped spearhead the Maritime Park project, leaves Pensacola to serve as chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Judy Bense becomes president of UWF.
February 2009: The Community Maritime Park Association board receives environmental permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
September 2009: Pensacola breaks ground on the Maritime Park.
2011: Projected grand opening of the park, though additional phases of construction will follow.