Shannon Nickinson: Here we go again, another Pensacola ‘what-if?’

City officials are finalizing a lease agreement to build a fish hatchery and research facility on city-owned property at Bruce Beach. We’ve been talking about this since June of 2011.

The agreement would allow the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to lease Bruce Beach for $1 a year from the city. In exchange, the state would use $18.8 million in fines paid by BP to construct a fish hatchery center that would incorporate educational outreach for college and secondary school students and public access spaces including walking trails and signage highlighting the ecological processes in use at the site and Bruce Beach’s history.

After the first five years of using BP money to run the center, the FWC will take over the financial responsibility for the hatchery.

But what if the City Council rejects the project when the lease is brought forward for its consideration?

After all, the composition of City Council is different now than the 2011 council. That council gave the mayor unanimous approval to negotiate the lease at Bruce Beach over another proposed site that would have placed the hatchery at the Port of Pensacola.

Gil McRae is the director of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, headquartered in St. Petersburg. The Institute is a state-of-the-art marine, wildlife and estuary research institute. The hatchery will be under his authority and would be considered a satellite office of McRae’s institute.

McRae says the idea of “splitting the difference” and building the hatchery on another site yet still using some of the $18.8 million in BP money to remediate Bruce Beach, add trails and improve public access is a nonstarter.

The $18.8 million is part of a legal settlement reached under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process among BP and trustees of the states affected by the 2010 spill. Projects in the NRDA process are awarded money based upon credits.

And the credits in this case are attached to the fish hatchery, which gives BP credit for replacing lost fishing use. BP gets no credits for spiffing up Bruce Beach.

“BP gave the money primarily for the hatchery,” McRae says. “The other stuff we are trying to bring along for the ride to satisfy the local community. [If the hatchery were not at Bruce Beach] I see no scenario in which [using some of those funds to clean up Bruce Beach] makes sense.”

Does Escambia County have any property that could serve as an alternative location? I asked Keith Wilkins, the county’s neighborhood and environmental services director, and Chips Kirschenfeld, senior scientist and division manager of the water quality and land management division of the county.

The county’s resolution passed in support of the hatchery project back in the day is the auspices under which Wilkins and Kirschenfeld may scout alternate sites.

There is a site that may fit the bill, Wilkins says. It is about 5 acres or so along Bayou Chico at the site of the old Weis-Fricker Mahogany Company’s lumberyard.

“If the community wants this, let’s not lose this,” if Bruce Beach is rejected as a location, says Wilkins.

Wilkins has mentioned the Bayou Chico site to McRae as a possibility, but it is in private ownership.

“If BP would allow us to move the project to another site, it would make sense for us to find a site with minimal obstacles,” McRae says. The Bayou Chico site “is in private ownership and that is an obstacle.”

Property in Walton County on a bayou on the eastern end of Choctawhatchee Bay — a site first considered in 2011 when Pensacola officials practically begged FWC to stay here — seems a more likely choice for Plan B.

“The Fort Walton property is already in government ownership,” McRae says.

In other words, one less obstacle to deal with.

“The credits have already been assigned” to the hatchery, Kirschenfeld says. “If the hatchery doesn’t go here, Fort Walton is champing at the bit. They want it badly.”

Both Wilkins and Kirschenfeld say Bruce Beach is an appropriate location for the facility, which will include research opportunities that could benefit this community well into the future.

The Fish and Wildlife Institute does all manner of marine science research, from habitat restoration on seagrass to work with shorebirds, sea turtles, manatees and dolphin.

“It is a full fledged research institute that (the Pensacola site) would be a satellite of,” Kirschenfeld says.

Wilkins says the Institute’s involvement adds flexibility in terms of the educational development of the site. They could do research, for example, that couples with high schools, undergraduates or graduate students, Wilkins says.

“In terms of a community asset, I think it really grows,” Wilkins says. “Let’s think about it more than five years down the road.”

McRae is committed to helping make whatever research possibilities the local university community wants to see happen.

“We intend to develop research programs beyond the hatchery elements whenever opportunity allows throughout the life of the facility,” McRae says. “We can bring whatever other research the local partners are interested in engaging in as long as we meet our hatchery obligations.

“That’s why we’ve talked with UWF, and they are interested in water quality and habitat work and having their students get hands-on experience. You also have the EPA lab in Gulf Breeze that does contaminant-related work. The general theme is we’re open to collaborative research.”

There is precedence for the way the Institute’s presence in an area can grow its intellectual footprint. McRae cites the growth of the Marine Research Institute at Jacksonville University as such an example.

Creating a footprint for the Institute in Pensacola through the hatchery could see it morph into the kind of place that people like Kirschenfeld, whose family stopped to visit sea turtle and dolphin research centers during a South Florida vacation, would visit.

People “will pass right by this on their way from the beach to the National Naval Aviation Museum,” he says.

It could become an investment that could grow this community’s intellectual power and reputation.

It could be an investment based on something other than extracting our natural resources or how well we can wait tables, clean hotel rooms or make retail sales.

Or it could become another what-if in the long line of prospects we dawdled, dithered and bickered over until it went elsewhere.

“It’s going to be built, but what a wonderful gift for the city of Pensacola, for UWF and PSC, for our schools and our students if people can look past five year to year six and seven, it could be anything that we want it to be,” Kirschenfeld says. “Gil McRae is that kind of person. Having him in charge of this facility, he is going to take suggestions from the county and city and UWF faculty as far as what they want it to become.”

Shannon Nickinson is editor of www.progresspromise.com in Pensacola. Follow her on Twitter @snickinson. Her column appears courtesy of Context Florida.

Shannon Nickinson



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