PORT RICHEY — If you're whizzing through town on U.S. 19, you might not notice it. But just west of the highway, on Old Post Road, you'll see a 45-foot sailboat lying on its side. And if you venture closer on Treadway Drive, you'll discover the boat has been turned into a stage.
The setup is part of Gill Dawg Marina, an enterprise devised by Erik and Colleen Suojanen. The 3.5 acre marina features a barn where patrons can rent pontoons, johnboats, bikes, paddle boards and kayaks, a track for remote-controlled car racing, the site of a soon-to-be restaurant and tiki bar, and a boardwalk connected to that of the neighboring Seaside Inn. Across the street is a house with a tin roof that will become an ice cream and coffee shop. The marina abuts Miller's Bayou, and beyond a swatch of mangroves lies Waterfront Park.
The Suojanens had always wanted to buy investment property. So when the land at 5419 Treadway Drive came up for auction a couple of years ago, they snatched it up. The self-described "water people" saw a way to fulfill a need in the area.
"It makes a lot of sense to have shops and things like John's Pass" in Madeira Beach to the south, Erik, 50, said, describing himself and his wife as the kind of people who see problems and try to create solutions.
The couple, who also own two plumbing companies, bought their first house together in Port Richey and lived there for 12 years, then moved to Hudson, and finally landed in New Port Richey, where they live today.
Though Erik hails from Michigan, Colleen has lived in same ZIP code her whole life.
"If we can better this area, bring more tourists and bring more family-friendly activities, why not?" Colleen, 44, said. "If you don't own a boat and you're local, you have to go to Clearwater or Tarpon to rent a boat. And that just doesn't make sense to us."
They're often asked where they got the marina's name. "Gill" comes from the saying that people who spend a lot of time in the water grow gills, and "Dawg" comes from the Suojanen's 18-year-old son Jake, who suggested their logo should feature a bulldog/shark hybrid.
Gill Dawg is springing up amid Port Richey's plans to rejuvenate nearby Waterfront Park and the nearly 20 acres surrounding it, known as the waterfront overlay district.
The city developed a Waterfront Master Plan to budget future improvements to the park, including replacement of the existing restroom facilities, a welcome kiosk, improved parking and lighting, a venue for future events and other amenities.
"I think Mr. Suojanen has some great ideas," he said. "I just think it's a great asset for the city and for the commercial sector to have him invest in the city's waterfront overlay district," said City Manager Tom O'Neill. "It is the largest commercial waterfront in Pasco County."
The Suojanens have a multitude of ideas for Gill Dawg. Though the marina has been open for rentals since November, some plans are still in progress. They are working on finishing up the boardwalk, completing the tiki bar and restaurant, creating boat parking for the restaurant and dredging the channel to create 35 wet slips for rental. By fall, they hope to set up a kiosk in Sims Park to offer kayak rentals.
The restaurant will boast beach fare with a healthy twist. The dishes will utilize produce grown organically on the property. The Suojanens have brought in Erik's friend of 40 years to act as consultant for the restaurant and tiki bar.
Dan Harri's resume is robust, with 18 years' experience as a chef for Shula's Steak House, and experience at a Sandals Caribbean resort and Planet Hollywood.
"The vision of Gill Dawg is to create a unique beach-front activity center with a unique alternative menu ...," Harri said. "It's not going to be your chicken wings and chicken sandwich type of place."
The marina already hosts several tours on the water and plans to include more. The Suojanens are working with former Port Richey Mayor Mark Abbott, who served from 2005 to 2007, to infuse historical facts into the tours. Patrons will hear things like how Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park used to supply salt for the Confederate army to use in curing meats. Another offering combines yoga classes with a kayak tour.
"I think the yoga is a wonderful way to start off the whole evening because it opens up the body. It starts to create a little more flexibility," said Christina Lowden, owner and instructor at Trinity Yoga. "It connects you to the muscles and body parts you're going to use for the paddle."
Port Richey needs more places like Gill Dawg, Lowden says, "to start bringing more of that adventure and healthy lifestyle."