ST. PETERSBURG — The plan to contract with a private developer to update the city’s municipal marina, a proposition that has faced tough questions from City Council members and vocal opposition from some slip owners, is winding its way through city government and could come up soon for a vote.
Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration is pushing the idea, which would lease the marina to Knoxville, Tenn.-based Safe Harbor Development in exchange for Safe Harbor investing millions into needed upgrades. Its argument for contracting with the developer is that the city will save money, preserve its borrowing power for other projects and limit its legal liability and exposure to cost overruns.
But the plan, which could result in Safe Harbor retaining control over the marina and collecting revenue for decades while paying rent back to the city, has faced skepticism from some City Council members and boat owners, who wonder why the city would hand over control of a waterfront asset and not undertake the improvements itself.
There’s general consensus the marina needs work. Where there is disagreement is who should bear the responsibility of paying for the work: a private company or the city itself.
City officials and Safe Harbor have determined it will cost at least $30 million to make the necessary upgrades. The administration is asking City Council to approve a five-year lease of the marina — the maximum lease time allowed for waterfront property under the city’s charter without going to voters with a referendum — during which Safe Harbor will undertake that work.
The plan would be to put a long-term lease to referendum after that, allowing Safe Harbor to collect revenues to recoup its investment and make a return, paying rent to the city as a tenant of the marina. If the city opted not to renew its lease with Safe Harbor after the new docks are built, it would owe a termination fee, which starts at $37.75 million and shrinks each year.
The work will include replacing the existing docks with floating docks within the central yacht basin, which is between the St. Pete Pier and Demens Landing, and renovating the existing docks in the south yacht basin, which is between Demens Landing and Albert Whitted Airport. Those docks still have some life in them. The mooring field in the north yacht basin, between the pier and the Vinoy Renaissance hotel, would not be included in this project. Later, in 15 years, Safe Harbor would replace those docks.
The number of slips would go down from about 650 to 617, mostly because the slips will be wider to accommodate evolving boat geometry. Safe Harbor’s plan also calls for altering the driveway at Demens Landing, which would reclaim some parking spots while also increasing greenspace. In general, Safe Harbor’s plan calls for making the marina a more inviting place for non-boaters, who might enjoy sitting by the waterfront and watching the vessels come and go.
One of the most controversial elements is rate increases. Safe Harbor plans to raise slip rental rates 10 percent annually for five years to fund the improvements and make a return, which Council members and boaters worry could price out some people, particularly those who live aboard their vessels. City officials have said even if the city were to undertake the work, it would still have to raise rates, possibly even more than Safe Harbor plans to.
At two committee meetings this month on the marina project, Council members expressed concern about the project.
“Our marina is a critical part of our waterfront; doing nothing is not an option, but we need to get this right,” said Council Chair Ed Montanari during an April 22 meeting, saying he feels the Council is only being given the chance to consider two diametrically opposed options. “This is a huge leap for city council to give up a waterfront asset to a private company.”
At an April 8 meeting, Council member Darden Rice said she would prefer to partner with a developer for the marina rather than the city issuing bonds to raise the necessary money to do the work. The city recently identified billions in upcoming infrastructure needs, and she’d rather save borrowing power for city-wide systems like wastewater than for a marina that primarily benefits boaters. But, she said, she’s only heard organized opposition against the proposal, and she stressed the need for public engagement.
Bill Herrmann, a yacht delivery captain and boat owner at the marina, is part of that organized opposition. He said he agrees the marina needs repairs and is okay with “reasonable” rate increases, but he wants a marina advisory board in place to help shape the project.
“We’d like to have a reset, and let’s figure out what we want,” he said.
Last week, Darby Campbell, president and owner of Safe Harbor, sent a letter to boat owners seeking to “clarify some of the misinformation circulating ... by a small group of slip holders who seek to influence the City Council in favor of their personal situation, not the greater marina slip holders’ interest.” He asked for “those of you who have remained silent to voice your support as the council needs to hear from the majority of the 700 slip holders.”
Herrmann called the letter “unprofessional.”
Once the administration answers the remaining outstanding questions from Council members, the administration will bring the item before Council to vote, said Kriseman spokesperson Ben Kirby. The exact date has not yet been decided, Kirby said.
Because the contract involves waterfront property, which is subject to special protections under city law, it would need a six-vote supermajority to pass.