Sewer plant upgrade needed -- cash is scarce

Sheila Ingram

Two proposals to move the odorous Main Street wastewater treatment plant away from downtown are, well, a breath of fresh air, government and business leaders say.

"I think it's the most exciting economic development news we've had for the region in a long, long time," said Tommy Tait, Florida president of Whitney Bank and chairman of the Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce. "It seems like something we should jump on."

The downtown Pensacola sewer plant has been a smelly nuisance for years, in constant need of repair and an environmental nightmare.

Previous cost estimates to move the plant have ranged between $200 million and $500 million. The new estimates given by engineering companies Hatch Mott MacDonald, Baskerville-Donovan Inc. and Jacobs range between $130 million and $160 million.

The lower cost is mainly because the plans use Gulf Power Co. easements for a proposed 36- inch main sewer line. That eliminates the need to purchase right of way and doesn't interfere with existing neighborhoods and businesses.

The two plans suggested in an engineering feasibility study would stop all direct discharges of wastewater into Pensacola Bay and other waterways. About 13.5 million gallons of wastewater a day is dumped into the bay.

"I think we're headed in the right direction if we can just keep it going," said Doug Halford, a downtown real estate executive. "I think it's workable."

The plans include a wastewater treatment facility near the Gulf Power Crist Plant in Northeast Pensacola. The plan calls for treated wastewater to be reused by Gulf Power and International Paper Co., and a portion of the treated wastewater discharged into artificial wetlands. Gulf Power and International Paper officials say they will look into using the treated wastewater.

The No. 1 question for the proposed project will be how to raise the money. Suggestions have been made to pursue environmental grants, a tax increment financing district or use sales tax funds or a combination of funding options.

"Our challenge now will be to find an equitable way to make it happen," said downtown architect Brian Spencer.

Developer Eric Nickelsen said, even in today's difficult economy, he believes grant money would be available because the environmental benefits are so great.

Environmentalist and downtown resident Byron Keelser also is enthusiastic about the plan that was presented at a public meeting Tuesday night. "Anytime you're reusing water, that's certainly the right way to go."

County Administrator George Touart said he is encouraged that wastewater won't flow back into Pensacola Bay with the new plan.

"The county is not in a position to come up with the money, but this will certainly give us a number to take to Washington to our delegation," he said.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said he is encouraged about the environmental benefits.

"So much discussion centers around developing the waterfront, but the bigger part of it is that there won't be discharge into the bay. We're spending so much money to control stormwater and those nutrients, but the sewer plant is discharging more wastewater legally into the bay," he said. "That's the reason something needs to happen."

Steve Sorrell, executive director of the ECUA, believes residents need to find a way to finance it.

"ECUA board members will not put those costs on ratepayers," he said. "It now will be incumbent on the people who want to move this plant so badly to come up with a funding source."

Pensacola City Council member Marty Donovan said he is encouraged by the proposal and thinks the Utilities Authority should consider raising rates.

"It seems like in the long run it would be cost-effective for ECUA. ECUA has had an insurmountable job playing catch-up," he said. "It's time to spend some money and do the right thing."