A boondoggle, they called it. A bad idea. A waste of money.
Six years ago, when Clearwater officials pitched the idea of building boat slips on the downtown waterfront, the city's voters narrowly approved the project in a contentious referendum. It squeaked by with 52 percent of the vote, passing by a mere 578 ballots.
Then the $12.8 million marina opened smack in the middle of an economic meltdown. Business there started out slow, and the critics howled. In 2009, only two of 126 slips had been reserved.
But today the Clearwater Harbor Marina is teeming with boats, the masts of their sails pointing to the sky. On sunlit days, it has become common to see people biking, skating or strolling along the nearby waterfront, looking at all the boats in what was once a moribund area.
"We're 82 percent occupied right now," said city harbormaster Bill Morris. Out of 126 slips, 94 are rented and 20 are vacant, with 12 slips kept available for transient boaters. "It's steadily been growing. We made a profit the first year. We doubled that the second year."
Boaters give the downtown docks high marks.
"We like the marina because it's safe and it's convenient to where we live," said marine biologist Mark Sramek, who takes his wife and children out on a 36-foot trawler on weekends. "With the floating docks, you don't have to adjust your mooring lines during storm events."
"I fell in love with it. It went from a barren scene to a place where there's activity," said Dennis Bosi, owner of Bob Lee's Garage in downtown Clearwater, who moors his family's 33-foot sailboat at the marina. "The city took a lot of heat to push that through. A lot of people had the foresight to make it a totally different place."
Skeptics see a slightly different picture.
"Of course it's pretty. It is nice. But it isn't the deal that everybody was counting on," said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson, who opposed the marina. "It shouldn't have been built. The citizens of Clearwater were told that the rental income from boats would service the debt and pay the operating expenses."
The marina is operating in the black because it has no debt. That's because the city spent roughly $10 million of taxpayers' money to pay off the construction debt in 2008 once it became clear the boat slips weren't going to fill up any time soon.
Before the 2007 referendum, city leaders had promised the marina would be self-supporting within a few years, that it would generate nearly $10 million in profit during its 40-year life span, and that it would rent slips to boaters for $15.50 per foot per month.
But the city had to slash prices, charging Clearwater residents $9 per foot per month and nonresidents $10.50.
'It's an asset'
Still, the marina's backers believe the investment has been well worth it.
"It's an asset that's going to be there for decades, and I think it benefits downtown and the whole city," said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who was the project's most visible champion during his term in office. His daughter got married on the marina's promenade last year.
"We thought it was in the best interests of the community to do it," said City Manager Bill Horne. "It may have taken a while, but it's coming to fruition. The voting public gave us a shot, and I think we're seeing the benefits."
In the last fiscal year, the marina made a $132,000 profit, said city finance director Jay Ravins. However, it didn't cover its depreciation costs, meaning the cost to replace the marina when it theoretically wears out in 40 years.
So, aside from providing a community benefit, will the marina ever fully pay for itself? Will it pay for the cost of its own construction?
At this point, it's impossible to say. It depends on how many decades the floating concrete docks last. It depends on whether the marina starts charging more for dockage and earns more money as the economy improves.
Meanwhile, boaters who frequent the marina have a more urgent question: What about putting in some better-located public restrooms?
Sorry, that would require another voter referendum.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.