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Bay Center Replacement Back on the Front Row


Once moved to the back burner, a proposal to build an arena complex to replace the Pensacola Bay Center is back front and center.

Owned by Escambia County government, the Bay Center is 34 years old, and many say past its prime. In 2017, Pensacola Arena Development Partners —formed by local hotelier Jay Patel — began pitching a new arena and adjacent field house as part of a mixed-use facility.

“We felt that the sports tourism industry was growing,” said Patel. “We had the right location, we have the access from the airport and [Interstates 10 and 110]. And so we commissioned a study with the help of Pensacola Sports, Visit Pensacola, myself and a few others. And we raised about $43,000 to show that we also wanted to put skin in the game.”

PADP’s offer stalled in 2018, because of problems securing federal tax credits. It was resurrected with revisions and placed back up for discussion with the Escambia County Tourist Development Council. One question many have asked is once construction begins, will the Bay Center be torn down then? Patel’s answer is: no.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Jay Patel, founder of Pensacola Arena Development Partners.

“Pensacon is very important; hockey is very important, it’s a quality of life [issue],” said Patel. “Disney on Ice, monster trucks – those are the things that would be disrupted for at least two years. So we have carefully looked at the site and re-engineered it to see how we can maybe build the two facilities hand-in-hand.”

The new facility, at this point, is projected to be field house and a 6,500-seat arena to be built adjacent to the aging structure.

“With the flex space of a single-sheet ice rink, and a possible 80,000 to 100,000 sq. ft. field house,” said Patel. “Which should have at least 10 basketball courts, 12 volleyball courts, that’s easily convertible to [a] 200-booth space for convention and meeting space.”

Total price tag is $80 million to $85 million — and therein lies a major challenge. Organizers of the project are seeking $35 million from Triumph Gulf Coast, the panel overseeing distribution of BP oil spill funds. Patel strongly believes that the public-private partnership running the project can secure the money.

“A public-private partnership is very different,” Patel said. “This is where the private side comes in there and takes the burden of the risk from the taxpayers, and moves it to the developers – who will come in and put up the $80 million for the project.”

Credit pensacolasports.org
Ray Palmer, Pensacola Sports.

If developers bring the project to fruition in 2022 — the tentative completion date — Triumph would pay Escambia County the $35 million for debt service, with the remainder possibly being paid through the county’s bed tax.

“As a lifelong Pensacolian with children and grandchildren [who] live in our community, I would love to see a new Bay Center – whether it’s rebuilt or a whole new facility,” said Ray Palmer, president of Pensacola Sports.

“Being the sports tourism agency of Escambia County, I need venues,” Palmer said. “If the venue could be added to that component, even better. But as an Escambia County citizen I want to make sure that it is done reasonably and responsibly.”

While Pensacola Sports is not involved in the process, Palmer says they’re on the sidelines watching with more than casual interest.

“A hundred percent interested; we are [also] the sports marketing agency for Escambia County, and we go and drive tourism through the available venues that are available to us. So, adding a new multipurpose facility, it would be very much an asset.”

While there is an artist’s rendering of the new complex, developer Jay Patel says that’s not set in stone.

“It’s pretty fluid based on what the design will be, but we’ll come back with a recommendation of a design,” Patel said. “We’ll meet with the county and city officials, to get their blessing and see what they want to do if they got any changes at that time. We’re looking at about four to six months before we get there.”

As far as dealing with Escambia County government, Patel — who’s on the Florida University System Board of Governors — concedes it has its challenges.

“Usually, when you’re approaching a development structure you have a board; here you have commissioners,” said Patel. “It’s more of an educational process. I spent a lot of time on public-private partnership as my position at the board of governors. And I bring it up because I took a very liking to the public-private partnership.”

Pensacola Arena Development Partners is expected to meet with the County Commission over the next few weeks, to determine the next move with the proposal – such as an interim agreement on a due diligence phase.