What A Decade
We entered the last decade on the heels of a recession and with people hungry for change locally. The Community Maritime Park still hadn’t been built. The city of Pensacola had approved a charter that did away with the city manager form of government, but the city-county consolidation effort never got off the ground.
Over the last 10 years, Inweekly covered several events that have had a profound impact on our community—some positive, some not. However, many of them have put us on a path that should make the 2020s spectacular.
Here are the stories we consider the most significant by year.
2010 BP Oil Spill
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers and creating the largest environmental disasters in American history. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. After several failed efforts to contain the flow, the well was declared sealed on Sept. 19, 2010. A federal government report pointed to defective cement on the well as the cause of the disaster, faulting mostly BP but also rig operator Transocean and contractor Halliburton. BP eventually agreed to pay out $20.8 billion for its part in the disaster, and funds have been pumped into our community to improve our environment and diversify our economy.
2011 Tarnished Turnaround
Inweekly’s report on Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas’ ill-fated attempt to make Warrington Middle School the highest-achieving middle school in the district was a finalist for the Sunshine State Awards for best investigative reporting. Since our report, the school’s grade has hovered near the bottom in the state for public middle schools. Last year, the school district hired Rensselaerville Institute to run Warrington Middle.
The Warrington Middle investigation revealed the failure of Thomas’ administration to build any sustainable success in its economically disadvantaged schools and planted the seed that the county needed an appointed professional running the district, not a politician. Last year, the county voters approved moving to an appointed superintendent that will assume the reins next November.
2012 Blue Wahoo Stadium Opens
Six years after Pensacola voters approved a referendum to build the Community Maritime Park, the multi-use stadium opened April 5, 2012. The stadium holds 5,038 people and has been used for such things as UWF football, NCAA baseball, SYSA Soul Bowl, festivals, graduations and other events year-round. While Blue Wahoos Stadium is the smallest ballpark in the Southern League, the team is a three-time recipient of the Southern League Ballpark of the Year and has finished first or second in the league in attendance five times.
Many see the stadium as the catalyst for the resurgence of downtown Pensacola. Over the past three years, the city’s property values have increased by 21.5%.
2013 UWF Football Program Launched
In 2008, we published in our April Fool’s issue that the University of West Florida was launching a football program that would play its games at Maritime Park. Five years later, our parody became reality when UWF President Dr. Judy Bense announced a timetable for the establishment of the university’s football team.
Pete Shinnick was hired as the head coach in January 2014. The first recruiting class was signed a year later. The first year of varsity competition was the 2016 season. The Argonauts has advanced to the national championship game twice, in 2017 and 2019. Not bad for a start-up.
2014 Jail Explosion
On April 30, 2014, about a half-hour before midnight, the Central Booking and Detention Facility exploded. Two inmates housed in a holding cell on the first floor in the booking area died. The blast injured approximately 11 correctional officers and 162 inmates. The building was a total loss, the largest non-hurricane related loss in the history of Escambia County.
Initially, the public was told by county officials that there were no reports of gas leaks before the explosion. Prisoners claimed the CBD was plagued with odors of natural gases and that several people complained of headaches and nausea. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the odor was natural gas and the county failed to contact Pensacola Energy to inspect the facility.
2015 YMCA, Urban Core & Southtowne Construction
The groundbreakings of a downtown YMCA, Urban Core and Southtowne on Jefferson and Intendencia streets signaled the next wave of growth for downtown Pensacola.
More than half of the donations for the new YMCA facility came from the Levin, Studer and Bear families. The Studers also demolished the old Pensacola News Journal building to make way for their $50-million apartment building and spent another $14.3 million to build the Urban Core, a mixed-used building on the site of the daily newspaper’s parking lot.
The buildings have expanded downtown dining and retail eastward and connected Palafox Place with the city’s historic district. The residents and new businesses have created a new vibrancy to downtown Pensacola.
2016 Mayor Hayward Fires Chiefs
Mayor Ashton Hayward spent three months and over $60,000 investigating Fire Chief Matt Schmitt and Deputy Fire Chief Joe Glover before he fired the two veteran firefighters. The men were investigated for six allegations made by Chief Human Resources Officer Edward Sisson after the chiefs had filed EEOC complaints against the city.
Both men filed separate lawsuits back in 2016 accusing the city of race discrimination and retaliation. Hayward quietly settled the lawsuits in October 2018 for $575,000. Needless to say, Mayor Grover Robinson didn’t retain Sisson.
2017 IP Plant Explosion
An explosion at International Paper’s Cantonment mill resulted in an estimated $80-$120 million in costs. According to IP, the cause of the explosion was a gas build-up due to an electrical failure. Debris from the explosion covering surrounding areas in the Woodbury Circle neighborhood, and the plant didn’t resume full operations until April.
People flocked to community town halls to voice concerns about health and property but were given few details. Media was given a tour of the Woodbury Circle where workers in HazMat suits cleaned homes and yards but weren’t allowed to tour the IP plant facility.
The explosion rekindled local concerns about the environment. A recent Inweekly/Political Matrix poll found 57% believe the county is more polluted than 20 years ago, and 63.9% believe local officials put the needs of corporations above those of the public.
2018 ST Engineering Opens
After years of combined community effort, ST Engineering (formerly known as VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering, Inc.) opened its $46 million maintenance, repair and overhaul facility at Pensacola International Airport. The MRO facility is capable of serving a number of aircraft and will employ over 400 people.
The city of Pensacola has been working towards building three more MRO hangars at a cost of $210 million. When completed, Pensacola will have the second-largest MRO campus in the country.
2019 Shooting of Tymar Crawford
In July 2019, Tymar Crawford was shot and killed by a Pensacola Police Department detective Daniel Siemen following a traffic stop. The public had to wait four months to see the video of the shooting while PPD, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the State Attorney’s Office investigated what happened.
The PPD’s internal investigation found Siemen had violated the department’s use-of-deadly-force policy, and Police Chief Tommi Lyter terminated his employment. However, an Escambia County grand jury last week returned a No True Bill, after the the jurors determined that criminal charges were not appropriate.
Siemen has appealed his firing. Crawford’s family has hired Joe Zarzaur to represent them, so more legal battles are ahead. Mayor Grover Robinson has committed to more training for his officers and forming a citizen advisory to oversee city operations, including police.