DUNEDIN — Dunedin Causeway concessionaire Glen Steinke, they said, is an icon. A stable, trusted businessman who's quick to help a customer in need or refuse a sale to protect a life. An employer, a father figure, a friend.
But impassioned speeches by supporters who packed City Hall Thursday weren't enough to prevent a 3-2 City Commission vote directing city staff to seek bids from Steinke's potential competitors.
The city is expected to send out bid advertisements Friday. The City Commission could render a decision by April 18, months ahead of the July 31 expiration of Steinke's three-year contract to operate his Sail Honeymoon boat rental and concession.
The vote dealt a blow to Steinke and his supporters, who had hoped commissioners would let him renegotiate a long-term deal without competition. City officials say policy requires a competitive process for all private businesses that want to operate on city-owned land.
Supporters debated the necessity of a bid under contract language, questioned its past use for other city contracts and said the process puts Steinke — who was forced to operate for decades under annual oral contracts — at risk of losing the water craft rental business he spent 20 years building on the causeway between the mainland and Honeymoon Island State Park.
"If you travel around Florida, anybody who's been to Dunedin, they remember the place with the kayaks," said Russell Randall.
"At a time when businesses are going out of business," said Rachelle Warmouth, "I urge you all to think twice about going out and searching for a new business that may not be there six months from now and wishing you had renegotiated this contract."
However, Mayor Dave Eggers and Vice Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said they were following the advice of their city staff and best practices, which say bids are standard government practice aimed at ensuring transparency and smart spending of taxpayer money.
Commissioner Ron Barnette said he believed Thursday night's praise only bolstered the argument for a long-term contract Steinke "should have had in the first place."
Referencing citizen comments that suggested the bid process is a ploy to shut Steinke down, the three commissioners stressed that city bid policy lets them show preference for the existing lessee.
In voting "no" to bids, Commissioner Julie Scales, who spearheaded the Sail Honeymoon debate last month, said the city should right its past wrongs against Steinke by extending his agreement.
And Commissioner Heather Gracy said requests for proposals are prudent for protecting public land, but that now was "the wrong time to use it" given the "inequities" Steinke had faced.
Said Scales: "There was an irregularity in the process."
Eggers objected to the insinuation of impropriety, essentially telling Scales to either put up evidence or shut up.
"The commission voted on the (term and bid requirements of the original) agreement," he said. "There was no wool pulled over anybody's eyes."
In other action Thursday, commissioners voted 5-0 to give Pizzuti Builders LLC and city staff six more months to finalize design, purchase and business incentive plans for the downtown Gateway project.
Updated plans presented Thursday reduced the three-story development's number of upscale apartments from 136 to 124. Developers also upped the amount of ground-floor retail from 10,000 to 24,000 square feet — satisfying Scales, who had voted against the apartment plan in August. The city is proposing $421,000 in fee waivers and estimating a $3 million return on its investment.
"This is really the home stretch," City Manager Rob DiSpirito said.
In the works since 2007, the mixed-use complex had been stalled and plans revised because of difficulties securing commercial tenants for the vacant 4-acre tract at the corner of Main Street and Milwaukee Avenue while the economy failed.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.