CLEARWATER — The double whammy of the bad economy and rising dock-rental fees has led to dozens of empty boat slips in the Clearwater Municipal Marina, which is normally full.
Nowadays, roughly a third of the marina's 118 recreational slips are going vacant as local boaters chose cheaper alternatives or give up boating entirely. Some of the slips used by commercial fishing boats are empty, too.
On Monday, the City Council discussed lowering the rents to drum up more business at the marina located on Clearwater Beach. Council members will make the final decision at their meeting Thursday night, but they indicated that they will likely roll back prices. They will also probably cancel rate hikes that had been planned for the next two years.
"It's unheard of to have vacancies in the beach marina. Usually we have a long waiting list," said Bill Morris, director of Clearwater's marine and aviation department.
Under a plan that Morris presented to the council, the marina would give commercial boats a 10 percent cut in their rent. For recreational boaters, he suggested lowering the dock rental rate from $13.14 to $10.33 per foot per month for non-Clearwater residents, and from $9.13 to $8.51 for city residents. He said that would bring Clearwater's prices more in line with the rates of nearby municipal marinas.
"This is our own little mini-stimulus package, if you will," Morris said.
It's about time, say boat owners at the 209-slip marina.
"A lot of businesses are struggling or closing down, and the number of recreational tenants has dropped significantly," said Eric Spaulding, owner of Queen Fleet Deep Sea Fishing. "This has been a bad time for them to bump the rates up."
In 2007, when the city launched a five-year plan to aggressively raise rental fees at the marina, owners of commercial boats complained it would hurt their businesses. The marina is the base for everything from dinner cruises to dolphin watching boats, small fishing charters and party boats.
"Business is down 40 to 50 percent over the past three years," said Spaulding, who operates 90-foot and 75-foot fishing boats and is president of the Clearwater Commercial Marine Association.
"We lost motel rooms when the mom-and-pops started closing," he said. "Fuel prices went up. We lost parking spaces on the beach. Now there's a two-month federal grouper closure for all of February and March."
The Clearwater Marina's next round of rate hikes is scheduled to take effect in October, with another significant increase the year after that. The rate for Clearwater recreational boaters is slated to rise by 31.5 percent each year for the next two years.
The City Council will likely put the brakes on that.
But council member John Doran had a question Monday: What happens if the plan doesn't work? What if the city just ends up charging lower rates to the same dwindling number of boaters, and brings in even less revenue to operate the marina?
"Now we're creating a Plan B. My question is: Is there a Plan C?" Doran said. "What happens if we don't fill the slips?"
In that case, Morris said, the marina will have to find a way to cut costs further.
Downtown boat slips: The council also will likely slash the rents that the city plans to charge at the 126 boat slips that it will soon build off Coachman Park downtown. So far, only 10 boaters have put down deposits for slips. Those slips will range from 30 to 55 feet long, and rents were to be $15.50 per foot per month. The new plan is to charge $9 for Clearwater residents and $10.50 for nonresidents.
Also, once those initial 10 boaters pick their preferred dock spaces through a lottery system, city officials plan to scrap the lottery, which has confused some boaters. Instead, it will shift to a first-come, first-served model for assigning the boat slips.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.