Arena vs. Field House -- That Is the Question for Escambia BOCC

Jun 19, 2018

The Pensacola Bay Center, opened in 1985.
Credit WUWF Public Media

That proposed arena to replace the Pensacola Bay Center appears to be dead in the water for now. Proponents are setting their sights a bit lower, while others are considering another direction.

The 6,500 portion of the $80 million project was scuttled last week when the Escambia County Commission’s Committee of the Whole failed to get the needed votes to begin the application process to TRIUMPH – which is doling out BP oil spill money to selected projects.

“Listening to all you commissioners is currently, we’re not all on the same page,” said Patel, who heads Pensacola Arena Develop Partners. “After talking to each of you this week, there’s a majority of you that want to go one way; the rest of you want to go the other way.”

Rather than make a formal presentation, Patel asked them in open session just what they could all support.

“The issues have always been, do we need a new field house?” said Patel. “Do we need a new events center? Should we repair the Pensacola Bay Center? Should it be downtown? Should it be up north? Do we use New Market Tax Credits [or] do we ask for TRIUMPH funds?”

The development firm is going back to square one, says Patel, to come up with a plan to build just the field house, as a home for youth sports and for sports-related tourism.

Pensacola developer Jay Patel.
Credit via Facebook

“Everyone can agree [that] they like the concept; I’ve been told by each of you, you like the concept,” Patel told the Commission. “Most everyone agrees that it should be downtown; it makes the most sense. But, let’s also face it: none of the citizens are getting everything on their wish lists, if it’s not affordable.”

“What I think happened was initially, the support came for a field house, and then as things evolved it grew into a life of its own when we thought that perhaps we could take a big gulp and replace the Civic Center as part of the same project,” said Commission Chairman Jeff Bergosh.

“And then of course, the associated costs went up, and before you know it – shazam – you’re out between $80 million and $100 million,” Bergosh said. “And, even with the injection of $25 million from TRIUMPH – if that were to occur – you’ve still got $55-75 million bucks that you’ve got to cover.”

Developer Jay Patel believes there must be a 5-0 vote by the Commission, to clear the path for 25 million dollars being sought from TRIUMPH Gulf Coast. He points to the efficiency shown by Panama City officials in securing TRIUMPH funding.

“Their economic development guys were here; The [Tourist Development Council] Chairman was here, and the Mayor was here,” Patel said. “The committee members asked them to speak, and expressed their need for the TRIUMP Committee’s important sports tourism project, as well as projects for Bay County. Collectively they were here as one voice.”

While Pensacola Arena Develop Partners is shifting gears towards a field house, Commission Chair Jeff Bergosh plans to bring a proposal, to spend $20 million on major renovations to the 33-year-old Pensacola Bay Center.

Escambia Co. Commission Chairman Jeff Bergosh.
Credit myescambia.com

“We can bond that for over a 20-year period, and get another 20 years out of that facility,” said Bergosh. “Better restrooms, better concessions, a new sound system, a video billboard, video marquee; improved parking aesthetics on the outside. A brand-new energy-saving chillers, [and] some solar arrays to lower the cost. It’s just that we can’t sit here and and be terrified to make a decision.”

There have been a number of snafus at the Bay Center, says Bergosh, including the re-scheduling of three Pensacola Ice Flyers games in mid-February because of a malfunctioning ice plant. 

“Imagine if it was Elton John here and oops, our old chiller broke down; sorry, Elton. We just can’t have that; it’s embarrassing and it’s uncalled for,” said Bergosh. “We have the resources, we have the capability to fix these things.”

As the issue of a new arena vs. fixing the old one continues, Bergosh said last month the proposal was “on life support.” One month later….

“I think our TRIUMPH proposal is – I hate to use a cliché and I’ve said it before, but I think its past life support. I think it’s in a coma; in a self-induced coma.”

Stay tuned.