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O'Neill family wins extension of marina lease from St. Petersburg

The city of St. Petersburg has considered taking over O’Neill’s Marina but has given the O’Neill family another extension of their lease, this time for five years. The extension came with a rent increase.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

The city of St. Petersburg has considered taking over O’Neill’s Marina but has given the O’Neill family another extension of their lease, this time for five years. The extension came with a rent increase.

ST. PETERSBURG — Alan Phillips has done it again.

After locking horns with the city over his family's lease at O'Neill's Marina for years, Phillips walked out of City Hall on Thursday with an agreement to continue running his family's historic fish camp and boat slips at the southern tip of the city for another five years.

It will cost him. Phillips, 64, agreed to a $7,500 rent increase, bringing his rent to $90,000. He also agreed to put $100,000 a year toward maintenance, mainly to bolster the marina's seawall.

"It's going to be tough in these economic conditions, but we feel that business is going to get better," Phillips said after the City Council unanimously approved the deal.

It was a bittersweet victory. Before the vote, Mayor Bill Foster promised that this lease would most likely be the last for the city's oldest marina.

"They are going to invest in the property even though they know that these are the last of the five years," Foster said. "I just want everybody to know that this is it."

Phillips, though, is of another mind.

• • •

Phillips' mother married one of Fred "Hap" O'Neill's sons back when the fish camp was combined with a restaurant and the Sunshine Skyway bridge didn't exist. In 1954, with his own hands, Phillips helped build O'Neill's into the destination for fishermen and boaters it is today.

They fought the state during the Interstate 275 S expansion in the '70s. They struck a deal from O'Neill's being sold to make way for an exit ramp in 1983. They rebuilt in 1985.

By city charter, the city can grant no more than 10-year leases, which is what O'Neill's always got. But in 2006, the city saw dollar signs in the marina business and tried to take over.

A year later the City Council extended Phillips' lease until 2009. Then last year the city crunched numbers again. Its municipal marina turned a $1.3 million profit in 2008, so maybe the city could do better with O'Neill's than collect rent.

It was time for another fight. Phillips rallied the boating community, which flooded City Hall with letters of support. In March, former Mayor Rick Baker granted the business a 13-month lease.

The city said it would set up a bid process in the meantime so that others interested in running the marina at 6701 34th St. S could come forward. Or else it would run the business itself.

But no one came forward, said Chris Ballestra, the city's downtown enterprise facilities director. That, and the down economy in general and in recreational boating, compelled the city to an alternative, Ballestra said.

Then there was Phillips' willingness to deal.

Phillips sought another 10-year lease. The city offered three. Phillips persisted and got five, agreeing also to add the half-million dollar commitment to the already hundreds of thousands his family has invested in the city's property over the years.

"They have stepped up in a very large way," Ballestra said.

• • •

Sitting with arms crossed in the center of the first row, Phillips listened through two hours of discussion before the marina subject came up. Next to him was his daughter, Lisa Battle, 36, whom Phillips wants to inherit the business, and Jim Parnell, O'Neill's general manager of more than 20 years.

City Council member Herb Polson apologized for putting the family through "enough agony."

City Council member Steve Kornell, who represents the area, said he would like to see O'Neill's remain. It fits with the character of the surrounding neighborhoods, he said. He'd rather the city focus on acquiring land owned by the state department of transportation alongside O'Neill's to create more parkland.

Walking out of City Hall, Phillips said he planned to pick up the fight in five years.

"O'Neill's is part of a family," he explained. "Giving up on one of your kids is not easy."

Reach Luis Perez at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

O'Neill family wins extension of marina lease from St. Petersburg 08/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 4:36pm]
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