Commercial fishermen believe the future of their industry in Madeira Beach could well rest in a reluctant City Commission's hands.
But the city manager, the city attorney and the mayor are not convinced the city should accept a $1.6 million state grant aimed at preserving one of the city's two commercial fish houses.
The money is available, the local project is ranked highest in the state, but at issue is how the funds would be spent and who would actually own the existing commercial docks.
After listening to an emotional plea last week from commercial fishermen, the commission decided to discuss the grant at its Oct. 5 commission workshop.
"The clock is ticking and if you don't act soon then this grant could go to another community. That would be a great loss for the commercial fishing industry, our business, and this city," Eric Dickstein told the commission last week.
Dickstein is an owner of Fishbusterz, a commercial fish house and commercial dock facility at 13613 Gulf Blvd.
In 2008, Fishbusterz and the nonprofit Southeastern Fisheries Association applied for a $1.6 million state grant from the Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts Florida Forever Grant Program.
The city, in a formal letter signed by City Manager W.D. Higginbotham, agreed to be a back-up grant manager if the SFA was unable to manage the program site in the future.
The Florida Communities Trust funded three programs and placed the Fishbusterz project on the top of its list for the next round of funding.
Originally, the project called for future development rights to the property, now owned by Fishbusterz, to be dedicated "in perpetuity" for commercial fishing, and for the SFA to manage the program.
The money would be used to pay down Fishbusterz's mortgage and for a variety of improvements, including an ice plant, a storage building, and a larger fuel tank.
Fishbusterz would continue to operate the business, which services up to 50 commercial fishing boaters and has docking and storage facilities capable of handling a million pounds of fish annually.
Then last year, the SFA discovered that it could not legally serve as the grant recipient or manage the program. When the city also was reluctant to take on that full responsibility, Dickstein approached the county, but was turned down there, as well.
"I would have no problem with the city accepting this grant if we would own the property. But the city would have all the responsibility but would own nothing. We would have no control and as the city manager, I can't recommend that," said Higginbotham during a phone interview on Tuesday.
Dickstein told the City Commission they "would be hypocritical" if the city continues to promote its commercial fishing heritage but fails to protect it.
"Madeira Beach is marketed as the grouper capital of the world. What happens when all of the commercial fishing is gone? Commercial fishing is part of what makes the town unique and fuels its tourist industry," Dickstein said.
Dean Pruitt, a third generation commercial fisherman and part of the Madeira Beach-based fleet of longline fishing boats, also urged the commission to preserve the city's fishing industry.
At least two commissioners are sympathetic to the commercial fishermen's cause. Both Nancy Oakley and Carol Reynolds said they wanted to "support" the fishermen and have asked Higginbotham to report how the city could ensure the grant is awarded to Fishbusterz.