OLF-8: Escambia commissioners want jobs, not homes, on the site
Jobs, jobs and more jobs.
That was essentially Escambia County commissioners' response to a suggestion that the county dedicate a significant portion of the OLF-8 property in Beulah to new residential housing.
The county acquired Outlying Field 8, formerly a 640-acre training airfield of Nine Mile Road, in a land swap with the U.S. Navy last year. The county has poured about $17.5 million into acquiring the property in hopes of creating at least 1,000 new jobs for citizens with annual wages in the range of $60,000.
The county's early discussions involved converting the land into a large commercial park, but after subsequent discussions with community members and neighbor Navy Federal Credit Union, commissioners agreed to bring in outside consultant DPZ CoDesign to determine the highest and best use for the land.
However, DPZ's preliminary marketability study findings — which suggested some of OLF-8 should be set aside for 1,900 units of residential housing and 182,500 square feet of retail — were met with a lukewarm response from commissioners in a meeting Thursday.
"That's not why we got this property," said District 1 Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, who represents the project area. "We got this property to do $50,000-$60,000 a-year jobs — clean, high-tech manufacturing — for the entire county. For (commissioners) Lumon (May's) district, for Robert (Bender's) district, for Doug (Underhill) and Steven (Barry's) districts. Not just to be a playground for the residents who live in Beulah."
The marketability study and financial analysis was intended to give commissioners a baseline understanding of the market forces at work in the area: the cost of and demand for things like homes, office space, retail outlets and hotel rooms. The findings were that the site was best suited for mixed-use development with white collar jobs in health care, finance and cybersecurity; retail shops like specialty grocery stores and restaurants; and a diversity of housing options for people of different incomes.
Beulah is already booming with new growth, with up to 3,000 new housing units already coming down the pipeline, according to DPZ. Bergosh said residents are worried an influx of new transplants would clog already crowded roads and erase the idyllic country living that brought people to Beulah to begin with.
"This isn't a city, this isn't a downtown," Bergosh said. "This is not downtown Miami. This is not downtown Pensacola. This is a rural, bucolic community that has exploded with growth, and (residents) want it controlled and they want it developed intelligently. They don't care if they don't get the maximum value. They want to maintain some vestige of what that place was in the past and I agree with them."
Still, DPZ and its partners' strategy is that creating housing on site would help solve congestion problems rather than exacerbate them.
Their concept is that having housing, restaurants and grocery stores within easy walking distance would reduce folks' need to commute by car. They have also found that compact, walkable communities are in demand across the country, and that those types of communities attract more businesses, more job seekers and higher returns on investment.
Peter Bazelli, who helped develop the marketability study with his team at Weitzman Associates, said the benefit of the mixed-use approach is that "there's walk-to retail, places for them to go to lunch, there are recreational amenities on site, they might even live on site, and that this is an appealing location for their workers versus a traditional commerce park or industrial park."
The research did suggest creating a 100-acre "innovation campus" that is estimated to create about 2,000 jobs, and that could co-exist with housing and quality of life initiatives. There was a caveat that recruiting businesses to fill that space would likely require a great deal of investment in marketing and incentives.
Bazelli noted that demand for new commercial space was fairly flat, and that new businesses that moved into commercial parks in Santa Rosa County typically offered salaries around $45,000. He said the Escambia County was more likely to generate $60,000 jobs by pursuing people like healthcare practitioners, operations managers and technical specialists.
Escambia County officials are hoping that TRIUMPH Gulf Coast will help the county recoup some of its land acquisition costs. That financial support is contingent on creating high paying jobs, and Barry summarized commissioner's concerns by noting any OLF-8 land that's being used for houses isn't being used for businesses.
He floated the idea of divesting of the property as soon as possible: making necessary infrastructure improvements for things like stormwater management and internet access, then selling it off to developers. Barry noted the county could help ensure development aligned with the goals of the county and the community through things like zoning regulations.
Marina Khoury, who is leading the master planning process at DPZ, stressed to commissioners that the marketability study was just a starting point, and that the firm would be both providing more information to the community and taking more input from the community in the coming months.
Khoury told commissioners the goal was ultimately to "give you a master plan that will be as flexible as possible, and to do this in scenarios."
She said there would be one plan that looked at OLF-8 just as a commercial park, and another that looked at how the land could be developed in line with the findings of the marketability study. She DPZ would continue to incorporate community feedback collected through the myolf8.com website and a community design charette Sept. 21-29 in its plans.
"The point of the master planning and the charrette efforts is really to give you choices, for you to understand the implications of those choices, and then for you to vote them up or down," Khoury said.
Doug Underhill noted that community feedback was crucial in determining how they should proceed, because while the OLF-8 property was an investment for the entire county, it was home for the people of Beulah.
"As anybody who's participated in the charettes knows, the data sets are the beginning of the conversation, not the end of the conversation," Underhill said.
Kevin Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8527.