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Escambia considers new proposals for OLF-8

OLF-8 property in Escambia County
OLF-8 property in Escambia County

Escambia County is considering two new offers for the county-owned property known as Outlying Field 8.

The Board of Commissioners decided on Thursday to negotiate with a new developer, who has offered $36 million for the entire 540 acres. Were the board to accept that offer, it could handicap a separate proposal to construct a light industrial facility on a portion of the site, which could create as many as 210 jobs.

Commissioner Steven Barry said the size of the first offer and the track record of the developers were enticing.

“I think they have the financial capacity and the expertise to perform the project," he said, "and we can ... start down the path of discussion and just kind of see where it goes.”

The proposal has been put forward by Tri W Development, of Montgomery, along with CAH Developments, of Pensacola. The developers have proposed a mix of residential, retail, and light industrial uses and also promised to set aside 15 to 25 acres for a new public school.

Despite voting to continue the conversation, commissioners said they were skeptical about the opportunity costs of selling the entire property, also known as "OLF-8," to a single developer and said they wanted to preserve the master plan for the site, which was developed with widespread community input by the renowned urban planning firm DPZ CoDesign.

Community members have voiced strong support for maintaining the integrity of that master plan, fearing that departing from it could erode the area's character and lead to unchecked suburban sprawl. John Kellis, a resident of the Nature Trail subdivision, was one of those who spoke up at Thursday’s meeting.

“Now it's dollars versus the master plan," he said, "dollars versus your word, your integrity when you agreed to a compromise master plan, dollars versus caring about whether you leave the residents happy and proud of where they're living or stuck with the consequences of what you leave them with."

Beulah resident Theresa Blackwell echoed those sentiments.

“We have a lot of community character," she said, "and we want that character reflected in our place. We should be a unique place."

OLF-8 Master Plan
Rendering of the master plan developed for OLF-8 by DPZ CoDesign

She added, "We need to preserve those western woods and the wetlands and the grasslands around it. That is a feature that can be the crown jewel of that development.”

Aside from how it might impact the master plan, selling the entire property would also limit commissioners’ ability to champion larger-scale economic development projects on the site.

It was the promise of high-wage jobs that persuaded Triumph Gulf Coast to give the county more than $14 million to construct roads, utilities, and other infrastructure that would make the site more attractive for commercial and industrial tenants.

If the county were to sell the entire property to a private developer, they might have to forfeit that funding.

That could mean losing out on job-creating projects like the one proposed Thursday. Code named Project Dynamo, the deal is being facilitated by Florida West. The organization’s executive director, Brian Hilson, said the company was offering $2.5 million for 25 acres of the OLF-8 site.

Of the 210 jobs the project would create, 170 to 189 would be full-time positions with a minimum starting pay of $16.50 an hour plus benefits. The company estimates total annual payroll would be more than $5 million.

Despite this potential upside, commissioners on Thursday expressed reservations about the deal after Florida West suggested it might require variations from the DPZ master plan. Commissioner Jeff Bergosh represents District 1, which encompasses OLF-8.

“We have a master plan that was negotiated," he said, "and so I'm concerned when I hear you say there's gonna have to be some variation. I'd like to know more specifics because we made a deal with those residents, and I intend to keep it.”

Barry echoed those concerns.

“We're not going to just do whatever it takes to get a deal done," he said. "We're not going to do that. We're going to ... put a good project on the ground, or we won't do one.”

While the two newest offers dominated discussion last week, commissioners are also knee-deep in negotiations with a third potential buyer. Beulah Town Center LLC has offered $25 million for 290 acres. The company’s proposal adheres closely to the DPZ master plan, and has already gone through multiple rounds of negotiations.

At Thursday’s meeting, developer Fred Hemmer expressed frustration with the board’s inconsistency and said he would like the opportunity to submit a revised offer if the county were to entertain negotiations for the full 540 acres.

“We once made an offer for all the property," he said. "We were told that you wanted the 250 acres, so we provided that contract in that form. Now, if you're really going to enter entertain a contract different than that, I request the courtesy of knowing that so that we can modify ours.”

Ultimately, commissioners decided to proceed with negotiations for both projects, while making it clear that any future development would need to both create jobs and adhere to the community’s vision for the site.

T.S. Strickland is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, Entrepreneur and many other publications. Strickland was born and raised in Pensacola's Ferry Pass neighborhood and cut his teeth working as a newspaper reporter in the Ozark Mountains before returning home to work as a government reporter for the Pensacola News Journal. While there, his reporting earned a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors, one of the highest professional awards in the state. In his spare time, he enjoys building software products, attending Pensacola Opera performances with his effervescent partner, Brooke, and advocating for greenway development with the nonprofit he co-founded, The Bluffline.