St. Petersburg City Council moves forward with private lease to rehab marina

Though marina boaters are opposed to Safe Harbor Development, City Council voted 5-2 to explore a lease.
City leaders have been considering how to renovate the St. Petersburg Marina.
City leaders have been considering how to renovate the St. Petersburg Marina. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published May 13, 2022|Updated May 13, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Despite pleas from boaters to keep operations of the downtown municipal marina public or seek bids for private operators, City Council members voted Thursday to move forward with a lease that would allow a Tennessee-based developer to redevelop it in exchange for a five-year lease.

Thursday’s 5-2 vote fell along similar lines as when the City Council met April 28 for nearly 2½ hours to compare what it would cost the city to redevelop the aging marina versus a private developer. At that meeting, City Council chairperson Gina Driscoll, whose downtown district includes the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina, voted with Ed Montanari and Lisset Hanewicz against even bringing the item to Thursday’s City Council meeting. Hanewicz was absent Thursday.

City officials are in favor of Safe Harbor Development spending $37.5 million on improvements in exchange for a five-year lease. Safe Harbor would collect leasing fees for boat slips and pay the city monthly rent. The five-year lease comes with the possibility of a 25-year extension.

City Council members learned it would cost the city $63 million to redevelop the marina. The city has an additional cost because it would replace pilings and concrete slabs, while Safe Harbor would only upgrade utilities. The city would still have to pay for some renovations, such as replacing seawalls.

City officials argued they would rather spend that money on other capital projects, such as affordable housing, and that Safe Harbor could get the job done faster.

City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said in the April meeting that the city and private proposals weren’t apples-to-apples comparisons, and two dozen boaters who spoke publicly before the City Council Thursday said the same.

On Thursday, after hearing boaters speak, council member Richie Floyd voiced concern that the developers lack experience operating saltwater marinas. He said he agreed with Montanari on preferring to retain city control of the marina. But he said he voted to let the city continue working on the agreement with Safe Harbor to get more information.

Boaters unanimously urged the City Council not to do business with Safe Harbor. They also argued that Safe Harbor lacks saltwater experience and that the Margaritaville-themed resorts they are known for do not fit with St. Petersburg’s vibe. Many spoke about the risk of ruining the marina’s welcoming culture and tight-knit community.

“We don’t need these people to come in and rip apart this culture,” said Christian Obenshain, a captain at Pier Dolphin cruises. “None of this is preserving any of that if you guys move forward.”

The council’s vice chairperson, Brandi Gabbard, said the city could work with the developer to mitigate boaters’ concerns. Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said getting input would help move forward one way or another.

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“If we hard stop at this, and start over, I won’t be on council,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to clarify that Safe Harbor Development would cover renovations that cost $37.5 million in exchange for a five-year lease. Safe Harbor would collect leasing fees for boat slips and pay monthly rent to the city.