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City will take over Marina Point Ships Store after almost three decades

ST. PETERSBURG — Marina Point Ships Store sits tall at the mouth of St. Petersburg Marina, a nautical jewel with second-floor windows taking in the bay.

By July, it'll be the city's to run.

Nearly 30 years have passed since Page Obenshain opened his ships store on city land. When he first leased the space on Demens Landing, it was a squat former Standard Oil station with no air conditioning.

The city first talked about running the store itself more than a decade ago. It has been a series of lease spats ever since. This time, when the lease is up, Obenshain will pack up and go.

The city says it's just the economy. Obenshain wonders what other plans it might have.

Page Obenshain, 64, and his wife, Lee, 63, run a handful of enterprises from the city marina. St. Petersburg Yacht Charters & Sales operates the ships store, sells, services and charters yachts, and sells fuel to marina residents and visitors. They have two full-time employees and some part-timers, plus yacht brokers who work as independent contractors. They're open seven days a week, closed just Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Obenshain says he has never had so much as a late lease payment.

Former Mayor David Fischer visited all the time when he had a boat at the marina for a decade starting in the late '90s. He would buy ice, talk to Page. Run in to replace a broken shackle, talk to Page.

He thought Obenshain was a great guy. He also thought the city could run its own ships store at a profit. It could tear down the old gas station, turn the tip of Demens Landing into park land and build a new store. Obenshain could run his other businesses nearby.

He floated the idea in 1993. By December, it was sunk.

Obenshain organized a letter-writing campaign. Fischer declared the city would not go into the marina store business. He also acknowledged the city might not make as much as it thought.

These days, he says: "You certainly want private enterprise in there if they can do it."

So in 1997, Obenshain, not the city, moved into its sleek new $305,000 store, with its 40-foot-long roof shaped like a compass needle.

He had a long-term retirement strategy. If he could get the city to sign a 10-year-lease, he could sell his ships store business with five years left, perhaps for $200,000 to $300,000. He figured he could choose his successor better than the city would.

He knew his customers. He knew yachts. (Heck, he once drew plans for, built and installed a mast right outside his marina office. He points to the desk where he drew it.) If somebody came in asking for a part, he not only stocked it, he could explain how to install it. Shelves show wire sheaves, sail track stops, fixed eye snaps, line hooks.

He never could get a 10-year lease. Even after a ballot measure passed in 1999 allowing the city to sign 10-year deals, the longest agreement he could get was five. When his last five-year lease was up, he signed a one-year deal to keep it from going out to bid. And then another.

That one-year deal is up June 30.

This time around, as he puts it, the past few years have not been profitable. He has been struggling like any luxury business. The surrounding 660-slip marina, which has long had a waiting list, still does ­— but some of its large slips are open, plus folks just don't sail like they used to. (There go visits for ice, sandwiches or Sperry Top-Sider sandals.) Yacht sales are stagnant. He pays $2,126 a month rent, plus 6 percent of his gross revenue for gas and diesel sales.

He asked the city for a hefty break.

Chris Ballestra, the city's director of downtown enterprise facilities, keeps an eye on those fuel receipts. The ships store sold $1.2 million in gas and diesel from March 2008 to March 2010. The city's slice was $77,000.

If Obenshain's store is suffering, why couldn't the city take over the space, sell just fuel, ice and snacks, and keep all the proceeds? It's a tough budget year.

Obenshain dares the city to make a better go at it than he has: "There are no free lunches," he says.

He worries for his customers who won't have a waterfront spot to pick up spare parts, or get answers to their technical questions. Their nearest option would be West Marine at 119 First Ave. N. He wonders why the city would take his store now.

Ballestra and his boss, Rick Mussett, say the story's quite simple. If Obenshain could pay the same rent, or a bit more, he could stick around. Obenshain says he never got that option. He asked for a break, they said the city would take over instead.

Obenshain points to O'Neill's Marina. It has been a family-operated business on city land since the 1950s. Last summer, it had to wrangle to get a lease extension — city staffers had big plans for the area around Maximo Park. That extension is up in July.

But in that case, the economy's swinging the other way. Who has cash for a big project now? Mayor Bill Foster has asked city staffers to negotiate a lease to replace the one that expires in July, Mussett said. No city takeover.

No such luck for Marina Point Ships Store.

Obenshain and his wife won't go far. They plan to move their other businesses downtown. They'll still have slips in the marina.

Just not the store. So there's a liquidation sale. The city's not interested in selling boat shackles.

Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8859. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.

This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: The Marina Point Ships Store sold $1.2 million in gas and diesel over a two-year period. A story in Wednesday's Neighborhood Times misstated the time frame.

City will take over Marina Point Ships Store after almost three decades 05/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 20, 2010 6:14pm]

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