Thursday, December 14, 2017

Little Gulfport Yacht Club tries to stay afloat

Since 1938, the Gulfport Yacht Club has been a continuous small-boat sailing center.

Nestled in the shadows of a larger facility and a stone's throw from a bustling city marina, the 800-square-foot building is one of the region's smallest clubs. It is also in serious financial trouble.

Few outside the city's downtown district know it's there. At first glance, it looks like a house, but for some of the members, it's home.

"It's a neat little club," said Bob Johnson, a member since 2006. "It's not really a yacht club in the sense of clubs in St. Pete and Davis Islands."

The clubhouse, at 4638 Del Rio Way S, isn't on the waterfront. There's no bar or banquet facilities. There are 50 dry slips and space for 14 wet slips, but that number has diminished because the area near the dock has silted in.

"The problem is it's kind of small and is not on the beaten path,'' Johnson said.

Factor in a bad economy and only 55 members, and it's easy to understand why there's concern the club could be forced to make difficult decisions soon.

If membership rates or boat storage aren't increased, the club will not be able to meet its lease payment, which is due to the city in June, Johnson said.

"A few of us have tried to keep going because it's the last bastion of catamaran and buoy racing in the area," he said.

So is the club on the verge of extinction? It depends on whom you ask.

"If we're not able to renegotiate the lease, we're done," Johnson said.

While the threat of dissolving is not an issue just yet, members may soon be forced to share their space with the public.

The wheels could be set into motion as early as June.

The club sits on city-owned property. After a meeting with city officials last week, club officials were given two options: Meet the terms of the lease or give control of the wet and dry slips back to the city.

"What we've got to do as a club is make a decision," said Karl Langefeld, club commodore. "I'm working with the club treasurer to see where we are financially."

Langefeld insists the club will live on, even if not under the current structure.

At least one city official agrees.

"We enjoy having them," said City Manager Jim O'Reilly. "If there's something we need to do, we're willing to help do what's needed to keep them here."

Since last week's meeting, city officials have conducted a survey on the marina.

"What we're doing right now is a marine survey to see how much our (city) costs would be to remove maintenance-type materials that have silted in, which affects the wet slips," O'Reilly said.

The club's lease is $22,500 and is paid annually, O'Reilly said.

"There's a shortfall at the club because the lease we currently have hasn't changed in years," said Jason Sanchez, rear commodore, who grew up sailing at the club.

"The lease was drafted at a time when the economy was thriving and boats were easily maintained," said the St. Petersburg native.

The lease is only part of the problem, he said.

"The basin we sail out of has become full of sediment, so we lost half of our wet slips. It's so shallow, you can't put a boat in there," he said. "So the city is looking for Gulfport Yacht Club to fund the back end of it."

Langefeld, on the other hand, said O'Reilly's proposal is consistent with the city's agreement with the Boca Ciega Yacht Club, which is next door.

If control of the wet and dry slips reverts to the city, the changes could be drastic. The wet and dry slips would be available for lease to the public. The building, however, would still be privately held by the club.

Gulfport Yacht Club members pay $800 annually for wet slips and $400 for dry slips. Additional annual fees include $25 dues and a $175 facility fee.

Under city control, the annual fees would more than double for some members. And with 30 percent of the members living outside Gulfport, the rate could be even higher.

According to O'Reilly, wet slip fees would be $151 a month for residents and $215 for nonresidents. Dry slips would be $75 a month for residents and $100 for nonresidents.

For club members, the primary goal — other than increasing the membership — is to provide a place for members and maintain the niche of offering catamaran races.

The races are "kind of like NASCAR on the water. It's very fast," said Johnson. "It's not like racing a yacht. You get wet and it's physical. You're not sitting around drinking a martini."

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8874.

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