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St. Petersburg mayor gives O'Neill's Marina another chance

Alan Phillips’ family built O’Neill’s Marina in 1954. If the city council rejects a lease extension, city workers may take it over.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Alan Phillips’ family built O’Neill’s Marina in 1954. If the city council rejects a lease extension, city workers may take it over.

ST. PETERSBURG — The calls and e-mails came from fisherman, boaters, beach bums and City Council members: Please keep O'Neill's Marina the way it is.

City administrators got the message.

In an unexpected change of heart, they'll give Alan Phillips one final chance this month to save his family's legacy, a small boaters paradise on the edges of Tampa Bay.

Mayor Rick Baker's staff has asked the City Council to extend Phillips lease by 13 more months. At least six of the eight council members must approve the measure on March 19 for it to pass.

If not, the popular marina built on public land will likely be taken over by city workers eager to massage higher profits out of the laid-back boat lot. Phillips' lease ends in June.

City leaders have eyed O'Neill's Marina for years, but each time Phillips' lease has come up for renegotiation, the 62-year-old boatyard junkie has managed to beat the odds and get the City Council on his side.

"There was no way I was going to give up," Phillips said of his latest battle. "I thought, 'well, we are never going to quit. We are just going to keep trying and trying until the last minute.' "

• • •

Phillips' family built O'Neill's Marina by hand in 1954 on a small patch of land 1 mile short of the Sunshine Skyway toll booth.

City leaders at the time had no desire to interfere with the family-run operation, Phillips said. But as time progressed, new faces eager to build up the city's coffers set up in City Hall.

Under the City Charter, there is a 10-year lease limitation on the property. Every decade, the question was asked: If the city ran the marina, could it make more money?

There were other challenges. The construction of Interstate 275 once threatened to destroy the marina. Residents protested and the road's path was reworked.

Baker's staff challenged Phillip in 2007 before he persuaded the council to give him another shot and extend his lease by two years.

Then, last year, city officials told Phillips his days were numbered.

The city's 662-slip municipal marina turned a $1.258 million profit in 2008. Surely, city officials figured, O'Neill's was worth more than the $100,000 or so in annual rent Phillips pays.

Phillips' attorney told him it was a lost cause.

But Phillips, who hopes to leave the marina in his daughter's care once he retires, refused to give up.

"We have 15 employees and they were all worrying about, 'hey, where I am going to work, especially in these troubled economic times?' " Phillips said.

He lobbied city leaders, launched a marketing campaign and rallied local boaters to his corner.

Even council member Jamie Bennett stuck up for Phillips.

"Alan is a hardworking man," Bennett said. "He is a good citizen and he deserves this opportunity."

Joe Zeoli, the city's managing director of city development, said the feedback made a difference.

"Certainly, the letters of support, the e-mails of support showed us that the community was comfortable with Alan Phillips and the job he was doing down there," Zeoli said. "The customers think very highly of him."

• • •

But even if the council approves the lease extension, Phillips is still bracing for a fight.

The city wants to take the extra 13 months to set up a bid process to allow interested businesses to apply to run the marina. And city officials are still eager to run the marina themselves.

"We are prepared to take it over at any time," said Chris Ballestra, director of the city's downtown enterprise facilities. "But we truly believe it's a good thing to allow a more public process to prevail."

That worries Phillips.

"We don't want to have to compete for our own business, and that's what we would be doing," he said. "They came up with the right solution for now, but we still want to continue to fight to keep O'Neill's alive for as long as we can.

"It's been my life and I love the place. It's like one of my kids."

St. Petersburg mayor gives O'Neill's Marina another chance 03/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 12:13am]
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