The Pensacola Technology Campus’ long and winding road from overflow parking lot to hub for technology-based businesses finally may be cresting the hill.
Since 2009, it has lain fallow. It has had some darn spiffy signage, though.
Nearly five years after a $2 million infrastructure grant brought the basics to what was heretofore known as “the place where I parked when the Foo Fighters played the Civic Center in 2008,” something more than grass may be poised to grow there.
In late February, Space Florida’s board approved a memorandum of understanding with the Pensacola Industrial Development Corporation for a land lease to build out a 75,000 square foot something there.
Tina Lange, spokeswoman for Space Florida, says the anchor tenant -- code named Project Expanse -- is an aerospace industry supplier that already has a Florida presence.
Additionally, there are three more companies that have letters of intent in, she says.
“I’ve been here for three years and I’ve been working on the tech park ever since then,” says Scott Luth, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce. “We’re finally getting to the point where the handcuffs are loosened a little.”
The tech park was originally to be a home for Avalex, a high-tech avionics manufacturer then based in downtown Pensacola. But Avalex frontman Tad Ihns got up to his eyeballs with the bureaucracy he felt he had to wade through to build there, so he took Avalex to Gulf Breeze.
Absent an anchor tenant, the park has remained empty.
Luth says one reason for that was the old interlocal agreement among the city, county and the Pensacola-Escambia Development Commission. It put stipulations on the development of parcels in the park, including the number of jobs created, wage guidelines and building specifications.
“(That agreement) was done in 2007-2008, which means I had to sell the property for what four times the going rate,” he says. “That was the first and biggest hurdle.
Another tied to the U.S. Economic Development Administration and what were their expectations for the site. The EDA furnished grant money that helped get the site in shovel ready shape, and that money came with certain strings attached.
“Their expectations still are that we create 600 high wage, technology based jobs on the site,” Luth says. “That’s still the goal, but what has gone away is, if we don’t reach that goal but we do a concerted effort and get something close to it, they would consider the project a success.”
Not meeting those goals might have labeled the project unsuccessful and made it harder to get future EDA grants, Luth says.
“If it turns out that we can’t meet the density on the site because we have to build the building differently or something like that, we have some flexibility to go to EDA and say, ‘We tried and this is what we had to do,’” Luth says.
Luth can’t say what the salary or hourly wage will be, but it will be well above the 115 percent median income level here.
The next step for Expanse is for the PEDC to sign off on the memorandum of understanding.
“When that happens, we will start bringing in architects and engineers to firm up some cost estimates of the building,” Luth says. “We need a couple of months to fine tune those plans, then we go back to the company to see if that meets their expectations for costs, etc.”
The PEDC also recently hired Beck Properties and CBRE to try to reach a national market and to help roll out the tech park, which hadn’t really been done before.
There is no doubt that part of the reason the tech park languished was because of Pensacola’s peculiar institution of seeking progress and then seeing local bureaucracy smother that progress in its crib.
But it also shows that investments in economic development don’t come on a set timetable. And that in civic life, we uniformly lack the patience that many of these efforts require.
Sometimes we have to invest in the infrastructure for something we won’t see built by Election Day.
That sometimes the deal we start making today may not come to fruition until someone else is in public office -- and we have got to be OK with that.
That we need smart, form-based land use codes (and overlay districts), streamlined building permitting and one phone number -- ONE -- that people who want to build or expand a business in this area may call to get their questions answered.
It doesn’t mean every project should take five years, but it does mean that whenever we get the opportunity, we need to get out of our own way.