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What's the future of travel sports tourism in Pensacola?

Pensacola's Brosnahan Park to host NAIA Men's Lacrosse tournament in May.
Pensacola's Brosnahan Park to host NAIA Men's Lacrosse tournament in May.

In hisweekly news conference, Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson discussed possible additions to the local sports landscape, in light of neighboring communities luring such events.

Panama City’s City Council recently approved the construction of a $40 million indoor sports arena to beef up that city’s travel sports tourism industry. Similar efforts are underway next door in Baldwin County, Alabama. Pensacola has flirted with the concept off and on. Mayor Robinson was asked if Pensacola is perhaps falling behind. He said it depends on what you’re doing.

“I think it’s tough for every community to have every single niche sport out there; I think the niches that you can get are definitely the best,” said the mayor. “[When] I was at the county commission, almost three years ago, we were looking at this possibility. And I think there were some good things proposed, but we were able to find the exact right site of what we can do, or what made sense.”

The Pensacola Bay Center is usually the first venue considered for such events, and there has been discussion about its owner, Escambia County, replacing it with a larger building.

“I think as the county looks forward for a number of things that they can modify, amend, or even totally replace in the same location,” Robinson said. “What may happen at the Bay Center in the future will enable us to maybe be more competitive in those things.”

(Another suggestion from Robinson was building a stand-alone facility at the American Creosote Works Superfund site on Gimble Street.

“I think that would have been a great site for that, but at the same time it’s really going to require the city and county to work together,” he said. “So, it’s got to be something that works for both parties and what we’re looking for.”

One drawback to that site is that it’s been on the federal cleanup list since 1983, and at this point, there’s no money available from the Environmental Protection Agency to finish the job.

Meantime, there are a couple of sports being promoted heavily by the city. One is soccer, with the construction of numerous fields, pitches, and facilities now paying off.

“The city has invested heavily in soccer; the county now has invested heavily in soccer, and we have the SEC women’s tournament here,” the mayor said. “I think it’s hard to say that we’ve tried to figure out the niches that we have. One of the niches that we totally have, I think tennis, is one of those sports that we can compete very well on.”

When luring such events to the city, Robinson concedes that you win some and you lose some. But he’s adamant that this is not a completion among Panhandle cities.

“I tell people all the time if Panama City gets something I’m excited. That means more people coming to Northwest Florida,” Robinson said. “And you know what? If people in Alabama succeed and people in Panama City succeed, what’s right in the middle? Pensacola. I’m going to succeed through their success just by what happens.”

“I don’t think there’s any secret that Pensacola Sports has been an advocate for the development of a multi-purpose indoor sports venue; I’ve only been working on it since 2009,” said Ray Palmer, President, and CEO of the Pensacola Sports Association.

One major obstacle in building such a facility is funding, most likely from the county’s one-cent hike in the Tourist Development Tax last April, from 45%.

Despite that, events continue to be scheduled and held in Pensacola. The Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament was played here earlier this month, helping to tip-off March Madness.

“Phenomenal success, and then, of course, we’ve also signed on the Southeastern Conference for their women’s soccer championships – which to have them come into our community in the fall is huge,” Palmer said. “We’re moving the needle in sports tourism every day.”

Add to that the NAIA men’s lacrosse tournament set for May, in the first year of a two-year run. Palmer says their world revolves around venues — no venue, no event. He adds that Panama City benefits from numerous partnerships.

“Their school system, their hurricane shelter components, FEMA, lots of resources, lots of big pots of money they’ve saved over the years,” he said. “As sports tourism has been a major — major — component of their full tourism market. [A] much larger percentage than ours is.”

The NAIA men’s lacrosse tournament, which is May 11 to May 14 begins a two-year deal. The SEC Women’s Soccer tournament is here through 2024. Both events will be at Ashton Brosnaham Athletic Park.