Sports Complex Plan Still ‘Fluid’
By Jeremy Morrison
Sports tourism is big business. Cities hosting weekend games and tournaments for recreational sports leagues lure visitors to the area, where they stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and contribute to the local economy.
“It’s one of the most profitable tourism areas there is,” said Ray Palmer, president of Pensacola Sports.
Currently, Foley, Ala., draws in this demographic with its multi-use sports complex. Soon, Panama City will do the same.
“That’s what we’re competing with, east and west,” said Palmer, who works to attract and market sporting events in the Pensacola area. “Pensacola is the easiest sell in the world. The percentage of people that will come to Pensacola if we have the venue is off the charts.”
Currently, Pensacola is popular with the tennis crowd. This is because of the city’s Roger Scott Tennis Center.
“We have a great tennis facility,” Palmer said. “We’ve created an entire market of tennis events.”
But when it comes to other sports, the venue options are sparse to non-existent. There is no sizable complex of fields for football, soccer or lacrosse, no indoor courts for basketball and volleyball tournaments, no pools outside of the University of West Florida and Pensacola State College, nowhere for gymnastics or judo competitions, no BMX tracks and so on.
“The key to this industry is having a place for people to come to play,” Palmer said. “You have to compete. You have to be in the game, and you have to compete by having facilities.”
Earlier this year, Pensacola Sports attempted to garner support for a complex that would have fulfilled some of the area’s facility needs but was unable to secure the funds necessary to construct the venue on land donated by businessman Quint Studer. Now, another pitch that first surfaced in 2017 is back on the radar, with the group Pensacola Area Development Partners lobbying for a larger project that aims to replace the Pensacola Bay Center with a field house and new event center.
Palmer is cautiously watching how these potential plans unfold.
“Am I a proponent of PADP’s plan? In theory and conceptually? Yes, maybe,” he said. “The PowerPoint is fine, but the devil’s in the details, and there are no details. I can’t get this excited with this much vague information.”
That said, Palmer would relish the opportunity to promote competitions held at this theoretical sports complex sprawling across the Bay Center’s current footprint.
“I will be marketing it, of course,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
‘Fluid’ Project Undefined
Last month, Pensacola Area Development Partners presented its proposal to construct a sports complex and event center to the Escambia County Tourist Development Council. The organization, formed by Pensacola hotelier Jay Patel in 2017, also shopped the plan around to county commissioners.
“I don’t know if there’s something that I’d call a plan,” said Commissioner Doug Underhill, who also sits on the TDC. “It’s more conceptual, and maybe not even conceptual, but aspirational.”
Patel could not be reached for comment for this article but has previously described the PADP concept as “pretty fluid.” The approximately $80 million proposal, changed little from its previous form two years ago, calls for an 80,000-square-foot field house and a 6,500-seat event center.
The last time this project was proposed, it fell apart because the Bay Center failed to qualify for federal tax credits key to the project’s funding. Escambia County and PADP also previously requested $25 million from Triumph Gulf Coast, the organization overseeing the disbursement of funds related to environmental fines stemming from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to help fund the project. This time, that ask will be around $35 million.
Commissioner Robert Bender described the Triumph funding aspect as essential to this project.
“We’re going to have a hard time making it work without Triumph,” he said.
In addition to Triumph funding, the project would be funded using $2.8 million of bed tax revenue annually for 30 years.
But even if, as Commissioner Jeff Bergosh says, “the chips fall the way they need to fall and the stars align” and the funding materializes, there are still questions surrounding this project. For starters, will professional sports—like the Pensacola Ice Flyers—be part of this package?
“Absolutely,” Bergosh said. “I’d love to see them play in a new venue.”
“I mean, I’m a hockey fan, but it’s got to make sense,” Bender said.
“I desperately want to replace the Bay Center, but there is no avenue to replace the Bay Center that includes ice,” said Underhill.
Home to hockey games, concerts, conventions, graduation ceremonies, political rallies, monster truck shows and just about anything else calling for a facility in the 10,000-seat neighborhood, the Pensacola Bay Center, formerly the Pensacola Civic Center, has served the community since 1985. The open-floor arena typical of its era is seemingly forever nearing the end of its run.
“We need to figure out what we want to do with the Bay Center,” Commissioner Bender said. “The question is, do you rebuild it or do you build another one?”
The Bay Center, owned by Escambia County, has long been a favorite punching bag for local officials. While the aging venue is still kicking—Widespread Panic just wrapped up a pair of Labor Day weekend shows, and Cirque du Soleil is about to roll in for a quick residency—conventional wisdom dictates that the facility needs to be updated or replaced entirely.
“That thing is a piece of crap,” said Underhill, complaining about how Escambia subsidizes the facility and describing it as “a $1.3-million-a-year loser.”
“We can’t have embarrassing events like the air conditioning going out when Barry Manilow is in town,” said Bergosh.
PADP’s conceptual plans call for scrapping the Bay Center once its replacement is finished. The new event center will be a sharp decrease in capacity at 6,500 seats.
“That is the one thing that kind of concerns me, but again, it’s not a deal killer,” Bergosh said. “How many times in the year have we filled that thing all the way to the rafters?”
The downshift seemed to give Bender more pause.
“Do you really want to go smaller?” he asked, suggesting consideration be given to the venue’s target tenants. “Who are we attracting? Who could we be attracting? If you want to grow your shoulder season, that’s a big part.”
Whatever PADP’s eventual plan concerning a sports complex and event center shapes up to be, it’s a sure bet that it will be fleshed out over the coming months during public meetings as the group continues its pitching to county officials. Escambia will also be advertising its request for any other plans for a sports complex project and assessing those along with PADP’s proposal.
Commissioner Underhill said he remained “optimistic” about the potential for a sports complex replacing the Bay Center but that he would need certain elements—such as shedding the Ice Flyers from the deal—to pan out. Bergosh noted that there are “high hurdles” to clear but said he was hopeful that PADP’s proposal would provide the path needed to replace the Bay Center.
“I think it’s time to fish or cut bait, and I think we’re going to go fishing,” the commissioner said.