Shannon Nickinson: Pensacola’s Bruce Beach deserves its time in the sun

Bruce Beach deserves to be more than the dumping ground for fill dirt, riprap and spoil for every other construction project along Pensacola’s downtown waterfront. It deserves to be more than the tangle of brush and overgrowth that shelters a makeshift home place for vagrants.

Bruce Beach in its current state is not the kind of place you would take the kids, Rover and your kayaks and put in for a day on Pensacola Bay.

It deserves to have the contamination that is likely on site cleaned up so that it could have a useful future — from arsenic in the old railroad ties from its days as a shipyard, from seepage from the tank farm on its western border.

And to my mind, I can’t think of anyone better suited to write that check than the energy company BP.

The proposed fishery enhancement center — to be run by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — is that 10-acre site’s best chance at having another lease on life.

Because whoever builds there is going to face mitigation expenses. And there is no line of other suitors formed anywhere waiting to take that property off the hands of Pensacola.

The proposed fishery enhancement center at Bruce Beach was one of the first big projects to be funded in Florida with BP money, money intended to make amends for the damage the 2010 oil spill caused.

In 2011, the City Council unanimously approved entering into negotiations for the project. Back at that meeting, there was palpable excitement in the meeting room at the prospect of the center coming to Pensacola.

In fact, when state officials mentioned that the folks in Walton County had a site they wanted to show them, Councilmember P.C. Wu jokingly offered to let the air out of their tires so they couldn’t get there.

“I don’t want you to go to Walton County,” he said.

Councilwoman Sherri Myers called it “an exciting project” and worried that an alternately suggested location at the port would tie up space there that could be leased for more than the $1 a year the state would pay.

“I see this as a ‘seize the opportunity’ moment,” said Councilman Brian Spencer.

Councilman Ronald Townsend initially favored the port site, but as the meeting went on and the conversation made it clear that Bruce Beach was going to be favored, he said he would support the project even though he preferred it at the port.

“[Bruce Beach is] in my district,” Townsend said. “Why would I turn it down?”

But it took until January of 2014 for the $18.8 million to officially come through and, in the meantime, questions arose about the project.

I love that the questions are being asked, because it shows that after decades of taking whatever industry we could get, no matter the impact on the environment and our quality of life, we want to think critically about what will become of our coastline.

Is a lease of a $1 a year too little for waterfront real estate? Show me the stack of proposals from brokers prepared to pay more for their vision of what could be there.

And that’s the thing. There isn’t one. And this town needs another big vacant tract of land like it needs a hole in the head.

Are the 12-15 permanent jobs the facility is projected to create “enough” to justify the deal? It is 12 to 15 more jobs than there are now. Earlier this month, City Council was asked to sign off on tax credits for something called “Project Flash,” a manufacturing company that would create 15 jobs at a vacant former retail showroom site at 1810 Barrancas Ave.

Those 15 jobs were good enough for a tax break. What makes these jobs less worthy of consideration as “good enough”?

Gil McRae is a scientist and the director of the Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. The hatchery will be under his auspices. FWC began researching marine stock enhancement in the mid-1980s. The Pensacola facility would be the first production-oriented facility for marine fisheries enhancement in the state.

McRae says it would move the state from pure research mode into a comprehensive evaluation mode for marine stock enhancement. He said the commitment to education, for the public K-12 students and college-aged students remains firmly in place.

“When we’re working in an area and universities know there is real-world research going on, their ability to recruit students interested in that work really increases. That’s a good draw.”

And he speaks of the way access by his department to one, small old house at Jacksonville University led to the Marine Science Research Institute, an entity dedicated to research on the health and status of the St. Johns River, manatee protection planning, river status reports, reef restoration and more. It includes outreach programs in Duval County public schools.

The wetlands to be built on site will filter effluent from the hatchery and link into existing wetlands, complementing ongoing plans to combat storm-water runoff that include a $2.1 million grant for a storm-water project a block north off Government Street near Corrine Jones Park.

The marsh plants grown on site, and fertilized with the solid waste from the fish, will be used in shoreline rehabilitation projects. Walking trails and educational signage are built into this phase of the project, with a commitment from the mayor’s office to continue to seek out other funding sources to add things that will build upon the educational mission, such as touch tanks, kayak stands and enhanced cultural heritage features.

In June of 2011, we fell all over ourselves to welcome this project to town. It seemed like a gift from the Daddy Warbucks we’re always looking for to save Pensacola.

Now as it nears time to put the check in the bank, some folks are getting cold feet.

Bruce Beach as it is now does nothing for downtown. It adds nothing to the walkability of Main Street. It adds no picturesque view.

It sits there, collecting all the debris we can pile on to it.

If we can get BP to pay for cleaning it up, I’d say that’s money well spent.

Shannon Nickinson is a columnist writing in Pensacola. Follow her at Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Shannon Nickinson


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