PNJ Editorial: CMP awash in questions

The following editorial was published in the Pensacola News Journal on August 3, 2011:

Datestamp: 08/03/2011

Editorial: CMP awash in questions

Is the staff of the Community Maritime Park Associates intent on sweeping the controversy over contributions to the downtown development under the rug before it gets a full hearing before the board?

If so, that’s not just bad public policy, it’s wrong. The CMPA board should insist on a full airing of the matter before any action is taken at today’s meeting.

Public disappointment over what’s been dropped from the Maritime Park is understandable. So are questions about the funding, which need to be answered at today’s meeting of the CMPA board.

Instead, the staff appears ready to sidestep the debate by presenting an agreement that would settle the controversy in favor of Quint and Rishy Studer. This before board members, many of whom were unaware of the issue until very recently, have a chance to fully air the matter.

Maybe, in the end, it will be the right decision. But it is premature for the staff to suddenly ? in an agreement with the Studers revealed Tuesday ? decide the question before the board meeting. Especially given the previously adamant contention by the CMPA’s attorney that the Studers’ financial commitment was much higher than the Studers contend.

The controversy centers on the total amount the Studers owe the park.

But it includes the question of why it took so long for anyone on the CMPA ? employee or board member ? to raise the issue.

There’s no question that the Studers have stepped up to help develop Pensacola and the park. They invested $17 million in the baseball team and contributed millions to the proposed Maritime Museum. The Studers’ purchase of a Double−A baseball team not only promises a great improvement over the previous, independent team, it prompted expansion of the stadium and led to a more lucrative lease for the city.

But just how much the Studers actually committed to the park is at the heart of questions about the many public amenities being dropped, and why.

The Studers donated $2.25 million to the museum, to be operated by the University of West Florida. That project died, and the money was returned to the Studers. But the master lease for the park states that “in the event the (museum) is not developed,” the money would be “applied to the public improvement costs” of the park.

Yet this clause wasn’t raised when Studer was informed he could get a refund from UWF in November 2010; when an attorney for the Studers pledged, at a Jan. 31 meeting, “an additional” $2.05 million to expand the stadium to meet Double−A standards; when UWF refunded the money in May; or when the CMPA publicly debated dropping $2.7 million in public amenities from the park, because of a cash shortfall, at a July 20 meeting.

Taxpayers depend on the CMPA board and its employees to understand the lease and its provisions. Why wasn’t the museum clause raised publicly at any of those points?

At some point it surfaced. Several CMPA officials, and Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, discussed the situation on July 19. The CMPA attorney said he wasn’t aware of the situation until just prior to the July 20 meeting, and later said the lease clearly directs where the money should go. Combined with the “additional” $2.05 million for the stadium, he said, the Studers’ pledged commitment to the park totals $4.3 million ? which would cover most of the canceled public amenities.

Attorneys for the Studers disputed the CMPA attorney’s interpretation.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the CMPA, Collier Merrill, also disagreed with his board’s attorney, while Hayward has avoided taking a public stand either way.

Clearly, it’s a mess. The last thing we need is a lawsuit to try to force the Studers to pay more, both because of the cost and because they have already done so much to try to push Pensacola forward; they currently are downtown’s best friends in the private sector.

At the same time, the public deserves answers ? and deserves as much of the park that it was promised as can still be delivered.

At the very least the CMPA owes the public a clear explanation on what happened.

The only thing clear about all this is that it’s a big mess.

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