For 35 years Alan Phillips has operated O'Neill's Marina, selling bait to local fishermen, building docks and seawalls and chatting with tourists. It has been his life's work, and he planned to keep at it until he retires in three years. But St. Petersburg officials want to cut him loose now, allow his lease with the city to expire and take over the marina. It is the wrong plan and the wrong time.
St. Petersburg can threaten O'Neill's with a takeover because it owns the land under the marina, located off I-275 S just north of the Sunshine Skyway. However, the marina business belongs to Phillips, whose mother married into the family of the original owners. Under a deal signed in 1954, St. Petersburg permitted the O'Neill family to lease the city property and build its marina there. The current lease expires in June, but Phillips is asking for a three-year extension. The marina pays rent to the city — about $100,000 last year.
That isn't good enough for the city, which thinks it can be more successful and make more money running the marina than the people who have kept it going and growing for 55 years. City officials point to the 662-slip city marina downtown, which cleared $1.2 million in 2008, as proof they know what they're doing. But the city marina, with its deep-water vessels and elegant sailboats floating at anchor on the lush downtown waterfront, is a world apart from O'Neill's.
O'Neill's has only 108 slips and caters to fishermen and small boat owners, who can buy their bait and tackle there, get their boat motor repaired in the service shop, or just hang out to talk about what's biting in Tampa Bay and the gulf. Customers say O'Neill's is beloved for its family atmosphere, customer service and deep roots in the community. Phillips and his customers fear what might happen if St. Petersburg takes over. Though the city claims it isn't planning changes at O'Neill's, change is likely if the city's primary goal in taking over the marina is to make significantly more money.
St. Petersburg, like many city governments, is casting about for new revenue sources. Perhaps the city could make more than $100,000 a year as the operator of the marina, but taking over a thriving private business that has a 55-year history as a good tenant is wrong, especially in this economy. If the city wants to maximize revenue, it should focus on other publicly owned properties that are not pulling their own weight, including the Pier and Albert Whitted Airport. The city should renew O'Neill's lease for a final three years and revisit the issue in 2012.