CLEARWATER — After two years of design, and an act of Congress to cut some red tape, a major rebuild of the Clearwater Beach marina is moving closer to reality.
With design work near completion, the city is preparing to seek construction bids and bring final costs to the City Council for a vote early next year, according to marine and aviation director Michael MacDonald.
The project has evolved since first launched in late 2021. City staff then estimated it would cost about $18 million. But with inflation and increased construction prices, as well as an addition to rebuild the marina’s roughly 70-year-old seawall, the project is estimated at $34.6 million, MacDonald said.
The 165-slip marina is one of the economic drivers of Clearwater Beach’s tourism — a popular launching site for fishing charters, dinner cruises and other excursions. There are slips for recreational boaters and a half-dozen transient and day spots. But the 1950s-era facility has never had a major overhaul.
“It’s just time to upgrade to new technology and make the marina more resilient,” MacDonald said.
The 60- and 70-year-old docks are past gone, pilings are cracked and deteriorated and utilities are obsolete, MacDonald said.
But another factor driving the overhaul is the rising sea level. During high tide, MacDonald said the city has to shut off electricity so cables and wiring don’t come in contact with water.
In the rebuild, the seawall will be raised a foot and a half while the fixed docks for commercial boats and gangway access platforms will be raised up to 2 feet. Slips for recreation and transient boaters will be floating docks.
“It has everything to do with rising sea levels and sustainability,” MacDonald said.
However, it appeared for a time last year that the overhaul wouldn’t be possible. The marina fell within a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ federal channel that had been in place since around 1960. Clearwater Police Chief Eric Gandy discovered the issue when he was serving as the city’s marine and aviation director in early 2022.
The federal control meant the city couldn’t proceed with construction on the marina, and technically the existing facility that had been built with additions over the years may have been illegal, Gandy said.
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But after Gandy’s discussions with multiple members of Congress, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, inserted one sentence deauthorizing the channel into a 395-page waterway bill that Congress passed in December.
“Talk about a huge obstacle,” Gandy said.
The design will create an experience that connects the marina with the nearby BeachWalk promenade, said Nicole Pauly, a structural engineer with Tampa-based Moffatt & Nichol, which is designing the project.
In a presentation on the design to the City Council this month, Pauly said the new MarinaWalk will have shade and seating to serve as a plaza and promenade. There will also be opportunities for public art.
While the existing marina has enclosed ticket booths in front of individual boat slips for businesses, those booths haven’t complied with county code since the 1990s. In the rebuild, visitors will buy tickets at kiosks along the promenade.
The project, however, will not include a parking garage, which many commercial tenants have been pressing for over the years. The surface parking lot will lose 39 spots in the redesign for a total of 307, according to Clearwater parking manager Jeremy Alleshouse.
Earlier this year, the City Council placed the beach marina parking garage into the second-tier priority category for capital projects and investments through 2030. The garage is unfunded, “but it’s not dead,” Alleshouse said.
“We all acknowledge there needs to be more parking for the marina,” Alleshouse said.
Mike Colby, president of the Clearwater Marine Association, which represents the business tenants, said some are worried about the disruption construction will have on the marina activity. But he said the modernization is long overdue.
“Everybody kind of realizes we have to give a little to get,” Colby said.