Who builds a sewer plant in the middle of downtown on the bay?
In 1937, Pensacola did. And at the time, according to Lois Benson, there were good reasons for it.
“Two things went into that decision in 1937,” says Benson, board member of the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority. “One, it is the lowest point and most sewer lines are gravity driven. Second, 100 percent of the money for it came from the federal government and they told us where to put it. So that may be a case of be careful of the gifts you take.”
The Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant was a downtown landmark for decades. Moving it was something that had been talked about, but the idea didn’t gain real traction until the early 2000s — and Hurricane Ivan.
Pensacola would not have made the progress it has if that plant were still on the downtown waterfront, and moving it was no small feat.
The ECUA, which owned the plant since 1981, upgraded it twice in the mid-1990s to try to improve operations and mitigate the smell, which made downtown essentially unwalkable when the wind was right.
Ivan crippled the plant in 2004, sending sewage into the streets and homes near the plant and threatening a massive public health debacle. It also laid bare the need to move the plant.
Moving the plant was one of the central themes of Benson’s 2001 mayoral campaign. No one else was much interested in hearing that at the government level. Most officials, including the ECUA board and leadership said it couldn’t be done and if it could be done, the price tag was too high.
Benson lost the mayor’s race to John Fogg but after the election, she says she kept being invited to Rotaries and other civic groups to talk about moving the sewer plant. One of those appearances included a 2002 debate between her and then-executive director of the ECUA A.E. “Van” Vandever, who said the plant could not be moved.
In 2002, Benson and other civic leaders formed the Strategic Main Street Relocation Committee to look at locations, costs and the feasibility of moving the plant. Those efforts included work by Baskerville-Donovan, Carlan-Killam and others.
They came back with a suggested route, along Gulf Power easements with final location near the Crist Plant, a dollar figure and a blueprint, she says. Benson’s daughter Holly was at the time a state legislator and in 2003, she got a $25 million grant from the state for a preliminary engineering study on moving the plant.
All of that infrastructure was in place before Ivan, but the storm galvanized civic and political will to make moving the plant the community’s highest rebuilding priority, Benson says.
When FEMA gave ECUA $150 million for the project in 2005, “they gave us five years to complete it from start to finish,” she says.
Without that groundwork, Benson says the project wouldn’t have made the deadline.
The plummeting economy of the mid-to late 2000s also meant, as she says, “we got great bids that came under projection and everyone needed work. We created a lot of jobs during the worst part of the recession. There were so many things about that project that were fortuitous. It gave us an opportunity to rewrite the history of our community.”
Groundbreaking for the new plant in Cantonment was in 2008. Ultimately, the largest public works project in Escambia County history came in under budget and early. The $300 million price tag for the project includes the new ECUA building at Ellyson Field and lift station and other improvements.
“It was a perfect example of how a major public works project should be done.”
Demolition of the Main Street plant began in 2011. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection gave clearance of the site in January 2013 and the property went on the market.
Selling the property is the ECUA’s next challenge, and the development of that land is a lynchpin to opening up the western edge of downtown to even more growth. The property was appraised twice last spring, though Benson says those appraisals have not been publicly revealed.
Benson says some of the pilings of the old plant were left in place in the hopes they might be able to be used as a foundation for whatever is built there. There is a major underground stream there that may raise questions about the ground stability.
DEP signed off on the project but the buyer of the site will probably want to have further study of the contamination done, she says.
“Building on the property is going to be very expensive because of the substrata and it is a floodplain,” Benson says. “Whatever is built there will have to be raised up 15 feet above Main Street.”