I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

OLF8, Beulah, and Master Plans.....Part I


We are blessed to live in a wonderful, vibrant community.  We are also blessed in that we have a group of several dozen men and women in our community that have done very well for themselves in business.  We’re blessed because many of these men and women want to give back to make Pensacola and Escambia County better.  They give back to our community in many ways that enrich our lives and make our community and Pensacola better.  We should be thankful for these men and women.  I won’t name them, I’d leave someone out and that would not be good, but anyone who pays attention to local news can work out many of these names on their own with very little effort.


I have served on the Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee for a decade, and in that time I have met many great members of the military and the business community who have served on this board.  The common thread of this committee is that all at the table understand the tremendous value the military brings to the panhandle of Florida in general, and to Pensacola and Escambia County in particular.  It is with this mindset that when the Navy approached the Chamber of Commerce about a potential land swap that could allow Escambia County to take possession of OLF8 in Beulah, many of these great community leaders stepped up to the plate.  They knew two things.  1.) This deal could greatly benefit military aviation training, potentially making Whiting Field “BRAC proof” (BRAC is an acronym for the onerous Base Realignment and Closure process that occasionally takes place, moving military components or shutting them down completely) keeping this training and all of its related jobs here in the two county area instead of transferring to Alabama, Texas, or the West Coast.  2.) This deal could give the county much needed and in-demand space for large-scale, high tech manufacturing.  So this group of leaders, including a retired Admiral, several members of the staff of the Chamber, Commercial Real Estate Developers, and others began working on the feasibility of such a swap.


With the devastating aftermath of the BP Oil Spill, settlement monies awarded from this event will help to restore our environment as well as restoring our economy locally.  With the rankings of projects under multiple broad areas, the OLF8 project ranked number 1 under economic development.  The group of community leaders that had helped to foster this deal, including the Admiral, have recently been shown the door.  After all of the hard work put in and the time and resources spent in helping the chamber and the county bring this project to the finish line, this committee of citizens was recently told their services “were no longer needed.”  Now, the entire deal is fraught with cost overruns, the Navy is in the cat-bird seat requiring enhancements to the OLFX site in Santa Rosa County that were never part of the original deal.  If the Admiral and others had still been involved in these late-stage, last minute discussions, many that are very familiar with this entire process believe these additional demands could have been negotiated away to keep the project within budget.  But some individuals with an incomplete understanding of the whole project demanded that this group, the group of citizens and leaders that brought the county to the dance on this deal, be thrown out of the dancehall just as the band began to play.  Now the project is over budget by more than a million dollars, and we don’t have the deal done yet.  Other issues are not resolved with OLFX, issues many do not even realize exist.  The smartest guy in the room hasn’t a clue about some of these issues that are now putting the entire plan in peril because when you fire the team that got you to the table, you lose ALL of their corporate knowledge on the subject as well as their personal relationships developed with the players.  This turn of events has been devastating for the entire deal and for the taxpayers. Meanwhile, some people bloviate about how terrible this deal is, yet these same people vote “YES” for every vote taken on this project that comes before them.  Spock from Star Trek would call this “fascinating.”


If it were a baseball prospect in the major leagues, it would be batting .750 and going for a record setting contract of astronomical value….as Forest Gump might say “GAZILLIONS!” Yes, Escambia is batting .750 on its commerce parks.  Let’s look it over:  Heritage Oaks, sold out, an incredible

success.  Marcus Pointe, sold out, incredible success.  Ellyson Field, beat employment projections by 50% a decade ahead of schedule and supports roughly 3000 jobs steadily since 1990.  Solid success.   The only Commerce Park that fails?  Mid-County Commerce Park on HWY29.  It was purchased in hasty fashion, without any consultation with/among the successful professionals locally in business that knew it was a lemon.  The slope and grade made it too costly to build on, and the location was too far north to be easily accessible, so this site has not been successful.  Even with the Mid-County park bust---Escambia County still is batting .750.  With this in mind---the experts in the industry know that OLF8 is a ripe opportunity for Escambia County to generate up to 3,600 good jobs while simultaneously improving this land to make it attractive for the residents of Beulah.  The track record illustrates that this outlook is probably dead-on.


When we are dealing with Public Private Ventures, there must be transparency for taxpayer dollars spent-- and everyone knows this, just like the Owl says in the GEICO commercials.  But there are certain negotiations that must take place with a legally permitted degree of confidentiality in order to keep other communities from stealing business from Escambia County.  Savannah Georgia is watching.  Biloxi is watching.  Alabama is watching—Baldwin County just landed a HUGE aerospace firm, UTC, with 300 high-paying jobs. Alabama is spending $300 Million this year to boost economic development.  Austin is looking at what we’re doing.  Charleston is watching.  Fort Worth Texas is watching. Jacksonville is watching.  We are on the map with our successful courting of Navy Federal Credit Union.  We are being watched and so to the extent that we are able, we must allow the entities that are charged with promoting our economic development deals (Previously Pensacola Chamber of Commerce and now Florida West) to utilize the statutorily provided exemptions to negotiate these deals without broadcasting our every move.  Elected officials can be briefed on these negotiations, and I think they should be.  And before any of these deals are consummated and made official, the relevant governmental entities will vote on these agreements and such agreements will be made available publicly.  This is how Savannah Georgia is finding success.   Right now, I’m told by sources familiar with current negotiations, there are as many as 40 small to mid-sized manufacturing firms that are looking at Escambia County and watching this OLF negotiations process.  Said one source very close to this deal “A year ago if asked about the OLF8 project, I would have said it was a done deal, 100%.  Today, unfortunately, I would have to realistically say it is down to 60% with the mistakes that are being made…”  Here is the thing:  If you are trying to beat the Austin Texas, the Savannah Georgia, and the Biloxi Mississippi folks---do you do that by playing a bastardized, byzantine game of poker where the rules you play by are “Indian Poker” and the others at the table hide their hands?  Guess what, if you play poker that way you lose and our community loses.  I hope everyone can see this axiom of truth, this known fact of reality. Let’s not play Indian Poker like this and lose our shirts in the process!


There are multiple renditions of the truth being peddled around the internet lately.  One I have seen and heard firsthand is that “Only 1 Candidate for County Commission has demanded a Master Plan for OLF 8!”  This claim is simply not true.  I’ve known since last October that the Master Plan was already a component of the overall plan----because I have followed this plan with great interest.  I live DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET from OLF 8 and I have a vested interest in ensuring this project is done right.  I’m the only candidate in the race that lives right across from this field.  So, what is the real truth?  As the county and its staff were busily preparing the documentation in support of the Restore Act Committee for their ranking process, documents were assembled that clearly indicate and list “Master-Planning” for OLF Site 8.  The line item for budgeting this work was listed in the backup documents the Restore Act Committee received to do their work.  $635K.  It is there, and it is clearly indicated as Phase 1 of the $19Million price-tag.  The $635K is for the Master Planning, and we all knew this---last year.  I would assume the active commissioners would have known this as well, as all they would have had to do to get these documents would have been to request them from Escambia County staff assigned to support the restore act committee.  Pretty easy, right?  These documents were and are a public record.
So who was it that added the master plan line item into this restore-act application, who was this person that knew this must be a part of the process to ensure citizen input?   [insert sound of drum roll]………………Jim Cronley did.  Yep, Jim Cronley.   (Incidentally, Mr. Cronley holds leases for or owns some of the last few large size lots in a two-county area for building commercial structures like those slated for OLF 8 commerce park.  If he really had bad intentions, he would be working against this OLF8 project in order to make his holdings more valuable.  Think rationally about this fact.  What he is doing here does not appear to make good business sense if Cronley wanted to maximize the value of his current property holdings.  I hope people will look into this, what I state here is a fact.  Additionally, I will state that I'm proud to have the support of men like Jim Cronley and Lewis Bear Jr.. proud and honored.  Men who give back to the community and do much behind the scenes deserve better than to be ridiculed, demonized, and insulted.....And just for the record, this is a fact as well.  One of my opponents in this race that is strongly supported by the District 2 County Commissioner met with Mr. Cronley and asked him for financial support for their District 1 County Commission race.  Cronley declined.  I wonder, though, if Cronley had written this candidate a check -I wonder if he would still continue to be attacked by this commissioner?  Maybe someone ought to ask him.....

Here are some screen-shots of the Planning Line Items and timelines from these documents, produced in September of 2015------5 months prior to the entrance of one candidate in the race for County Commission, District 1.  She may want a Master Plan for OLF8, but guess what? We all do too and we’ve know it was coming before she even entered the space…. She is late to the party because this has always been a component of the plan and all of us that understand this process know that a Master Plan will be required for this parcel of land once we receive it from the Navy.


Once the land swap is completed---if we can stumble over the finish line despite shooting ourselves in the foot as a county---- the Master Planning process will commence.  This process will have multiple junctions where the public is invited in for comment.  Let me say that again.  This Master Planning Process for OLF 8 will have multiple opportunities for citizens and property owners that actually reside in Beulah (Like me and my neighbors) to weigh in on whatever is contemplated for this property.  And I can say this unequivocally:  I will support NO development on this field until the infrastructure necessary to support the additional loading is completed and the Master Plan for OLF8 is completed as well.  Once the plan is completed, I strongly support the plan to bring a world-class commerce park to this land.  Aesthetically pleasing, with no smoke stacks, no crushing machines, no foul odors, but a clean jobs producing high-tech park.  This is what I support, this is what the team has been working toward.  Nothing nefarious, nothing sinister, no back-room deals, no Smoking Man from the X-files…...


Some candidates are calling for a master plan for all of Beulah—and this could be done.  But I would urge caution on this and move slowly and deliberately toward this if this is, in fact, what the citizens want.  I have walked to see more than 1000 Residents personally in Beulah, 8600 total throughout District 1, and the majority of folks I have spoken with want to be able to utilize their property the way they want to—horses, burning wood and yard debris, having chickens, etc.  These folks don’t want some government bureaucrat telling them what they can and cannot do with their 10 acres or 20 acres in Beulah.  So I am sensitive to the wants of my neighbors in Beulah that want autonomy with respect to their property decisions.  I would also tell everyone here that there are many master planning horror stories out there, and I would urge everyone to read about them before rushing to jump on the Master Planning bandwagon.


Call me on my personal cell phone any time for any questions you might have about this blog-post.  My number is 850-293-1459.  If you want to do independent research on this subject, contact the county and request the documents for yourself, they are now a public record. Request to restore act committee backup materials and you will see that everything I have stated in this blog post is factual.  I'll be prepared to discuss every aspect of this post and many more items of interest at this week's forums on Monday, Tuesday--but anyone is free to call me anytime if they'd like to discuss this in more detail.   And stay tuned for part II of this blog post coming soon…..

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