The seeds for the next phase of Pensacola’s renaissance may have been planted by an urban planner from Pittsburgh and an offensive lineman with the Green Bay Packers.
In 2005, urban planner Ray Gindroz was brought to town to help focus the community’s vision for its future development of downtown, one that bridges the east and west sides of Pensacola with a strong educational component, great public spaces and walkability.
In 2015, Josh Sitton, Catholic High alumni and All-Pro guard for one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, emailed entrepreneur Quint Studer with an idea;
“Have you ever thought of getting UWF on the ECUA site?”
Studer and his wife, Rishy had recently bought the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority property on Main Street for $5.2 million cash.
“(Sitton) is a very smart guy and he’s very committed to downtown Pensacola,” said Studer. “And all of a sudden, it clicked. Maybe not the ECUA site, but what about across the street” at the Community Maritime Park.
The culmination of that effort is the University of West Florida’s Center for Entrepreneurship, which will focus on community building, education, research and supporting small-business development.
The idea deeply enhances the University’s downtown presence and restores the educational and community-building components missing from the Maritime Park since UWF withdrew from the original plans for the park that included research space, classrooms and a maritime museum.
“It’s going to build out the rest of the city,” said Mayor Ashton Hayward III. “People are really starting to understand that a vibrant downtown is the lifeblood of a city. When education is involved, when the public-private sector is involved, it makes it that much more vibrant.”
The building is one aspect of a $20-million investment the Studers have proposed for parcels 3, 6, and 9 at the Maritime Park. The school and the convention center represent roughly $14 million of that investment, Quint Studer said.
The Studers’ leases for parcels 3, 6 and 9 are being reviewed by the city attorney. Hayward said the goal is to get the Pensacola City Council’s OK on July 7.
“Hopefully on July 7, we can make a decision and start moving this forward,” Hayward said. “The Studer Community Institute is ready to go and UWF is ready to go.”
What UWF gets out of it
The Center will be housed in the College of Business and host efforts to create a culture of entrepreneurial thinking.
University director of communications Megan Gonzalez said the UWF College of Business is developing degree and certificate programs in entrepreneurship and will launch an MBA with an emphasis on entrepreneurship in the fall.
“Currently, we provide an undergrad certificate in small business management/entrepreneurship and a graduate certificate in entrepreneurship,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said that while numerous activities and initiatives related to the Center will be at UWF’s main campus, choosing to put the school’s hub downtown improves the connections to industry and community partners.
It also gives UWF a direct link to the city’s epicenter of commerce activity and links to UWF’s Innovation Institute in the DeVillers Square building, some eight blocks north of the new campus.
One of the first marquee events the Center for Entrepreneurship will host is “EntreCon,” a two-day workshop in entrepreneurship Nov. 5-6. The Studer Community Institute is helping produce that event.
The convention center is important to UWF as it expands its business offerings because it can be used as a real-world practicum for students in the hospitality program.
Studer said when he taught a class at Cornell University he was put up in a hotel that was run by Cornell’s hospitality program, a pattern he has seen repeated at the University of Central Florida and in Arkansas among other places.
The opportunity for UWF students to get similar real-world experience is exciting, Studer said.
Moving the Palafox buzz west
Finding the funding to build UWF’s portion of the original Maritime Park vision was the undoing of the university’s involvement in the park.
A state grant program to match locally raised funds lapsed before the maritime museum could come to fruition. The idea’s key proponent, then-President John Cavanaugh left UWF. The economic downturn of the mid- and late-2000s didn’t help.
But Studer said in his conversations with UWF officials since that time, including executive vice president Martha Saunders, the desire to increase UWF’s footprint downtown remained strong.
“What we’ve done with this combination, by us taking on the capital risk per se by building the buildings, UWF benefits because they’re only leasing what they need. They’ll use the conference space like anyone else but they won’t have to pay for it 24/7 365.”
It also ties back to creating the connectedness, walkability and vibrancy throughout all of downtown that was a hallmark of the 2005 Gindroz plan.
“One of the big worries I’ve always had in Pensacola is lack of zoning and how things fit together,” Studer said. “(Gindroz) pointed out that every city has a great intersection and we didn’t have one.
“He said the corner it should be in Pensacola is Palafox and Main, so that stayed in the back of my mind and led (his investment in buildings at the intersection of) Palafox and Main.
The One51 Main building being built by Beck Properties, a candy store in the works between Rishy Studer and Bagdad native and pro golfer Bubba Watson, the opening of the Maritime Place officer building, and now the Center for Entrepreneurship, Studer said that’s happening.
The next step is push that energy up DeVilliers Street, which he aims to do with his plans for the 19.5-acre ECUA property.
Studer wants to use the 6 acres on the eastside of the old ECUA property and create a pond or lake that would help manage stormwater issues in a natural way. It would complement the city’s $2.1 million stormwater project planned just north of the ECUA property on Government Street at the Corrine Jones park.
The pond feature would roughly touch the footprint of Washerwoman’s Creek, an old, buried stream bed that ran through that property and still empties into Pensacola Bay near the Baskerville Donovan Engineering firm’s office building in times of heavy rain.
Studer has hired an Atlanta firm to develop that green space in a way that provides an open feeling and includes parking for the Center for Entrepreneurship.
“What a lot of developers do is put all their concrete in and then they figure how do they squeeze a little green space in there,” Studer said. “Our goal is do the green space first. We’re building what would look like a pond or lake with walkovers, very nice open feel and that would include some surface parking.”
Ties to Blount Building, DeVilliers Square
The Center is meant to create a campus-feeling in downtown.
Studer noted that Bobby Switzer, Teresa Dos Santos and AppRiver are working to have ready later this fall one floor of the Brent Building that could be used as an innovative business incubator space.
“They’re going to make that a large space that you see in cities where a person can come down for an hour or a day, use some office space, some classes can be down there,” Studer said.
“What’s neat though, you could go down there while you don’t have the funds to do private space, and from there and graduate to DeVilliers Square and lease private office space.
“And the faculty at the Center of Entrepreneurship, can say, I’m going to do a special lecture at the Brent Building on accessing venture capital,” Studer said.
International research firm, Gallup is a favorite reference point of Studer’s when he discusses urban development.
“Gallup says to build a vibrant city you need something to bring a lot of people downtown. You need a downtown campus, you need to support your small businesses and give startups access to capital.
“Seeing that the Greater Pensacola Entrepreneur Fund is part of this. That takes care of access to capital. The (Studer Community) Institute will provide training. The Center will be there for small business development.
“You’ve hit three out of those four things,” he said.
The spirit of mentorship from one generation of business owners to the next was something that Hayward said struck home for him.
“I came from the philosophy of giving back,” Hayward said. “What’s happening now with the Center for Entrepreneurship, which was a struggle at first for Pensacola, is seeing some of the old-school guys getting involved and giving back.”