Advertisement

Could life and low rent change for St. Petersburg marina’s residents?

St. Petersburg wants to privatize the municipal marina to pay for its redevelopment.
 
Boats in the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina as seen from the 28th floor of the Signature Place condos on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
Boats in the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina as seen from the 28th floor of the Signature Place condos on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 13, 2023|Updated July 14, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Among the residents in this gated, waterfront community are a retired judge and Trader Joe’s employee. Engineers, pilots and a dance teacher. A gig worker with three jobs and an executive working from home. Retirees living their dream, families raising children and young adults just starting out.

Poll workers shoot them funny looks when they see their addresses on their IDs. People ask strange questions about how they cook their meals and go to the bathroom when they explain where they live. They can hear Rowdies’ goals and see their decks on TV during the Firestone Grand Prix. And many say they live here for less than $1,000 a month.

They are the residents of the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. Among the 660 slips where commercial and recreational boats dot the postcard-worthy waterfront, more than 100 people live aboard their vessels.

With the city of St. Petersburg in the background, Mark Fay works to pull the boat closer to the dock as he and his wife, Karen, prepare to disembark from the 44-foot sailboat they live on at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on Monday.
With the city of St. Petersburg in the background, Mark Fay works to pull the boat closer to the dock as he and his wife, Karen, prepare to disembark from the 44-foot sailboat they live on at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on Monday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

There are those who call it a retirement plan, others a way of life — and for some, a necessity. They can live at the marina on $230 a week. They see it as a haven from the affordable housing crisis, and a testament that the waterfront is for everyone.

Now they’re fighting to save their neighborhood. The marina is ripe for redevelopment and needs renovations. But the city doesn’t want to pay. Instead, officials have long sought a private company to do it in exchange for running the marina and collecting rent.

The majority of the renovations would be paid for by five years’ worth of slip rentals, not taxpayer dollars. The city would still get a cut of the revenue.

St. Petersburg received two proposals by a Friday deadline, though the city only released the bidders’ names, not details. One came from Safe Harbor Marinas, which in 2019 submitted an unsolicited proposal that pitched taking on the cost of renovating the marina in exchange for the right to lease and operate it. The other came from Suntex Marinas. Both operate a number of marinas around Florida.

The specifics would be spelled out in a five-year contract that needs a supermajority vote from the City Council. But marina residents say that the uncertainty surrounding their home port is unsettling and that the city has not been communicative or transparent about their future. Like their neighbors on land, they fear being displaced if slip rents go sky-high.

“We’re a neighborhood in this town. We are an integral part of this town,” said Mark Fay, 68, a retired electrical engineer who has lived at the marina with his wife, Karen, 70, a medical technician, since 1997. “We aren’t something to be shipped off somewhere else.”

Karen Fay laughs as she snuggles up with her husband, Mark, as they sit together in the saloon area of the 44-foot sailboat they live on at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. Their boat is named Enough. “It is Enough. Or I’ve had Enough. Depends on your frame of mind,” Karen Fay said. The couple have been married for 50 years and have lived on their boat in the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina since 1997.
Karen Fay laughs as she snuggles up with her husband, Mark, as they sit together in the saloon area of the 44-foot sailboat they live on at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. Their boat is named Enough. “It is Enough. Or I’ve had Enough. Depends on your frame of mind,” Karen Fay said. The couple have been married for 50 years and have lived on their boat in the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina since 1997. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“We have nowhere to go”

The residents point to their neighbor, the St. Pete Pier. If that $92 million redevelopment was paid for with public dollars, then why can’t the marina’s?

The city likely took on debt when the municipal marina’s first docks were built in 1963, said Joe Zeoli, managing director of city development. In his 35-year career at the city, he’s had stints as the director for downtown waterfront facilities, which includes the marina.

The city doesn’t want to take on debt and be responsible for budget overruns, Zeoli said, as was the case for the pier. That would fall to the developer. Zeoli said the city isn’t in the business of redeveloping marinas.

“We do one every 50 years, they do one every day,” he said of a private developer. “I believe they can deliver a superior product for less cost.”

Any deal with the city comes with a twist. Under the city charter, St. Petersburg can offer a developer no more than a five-year lease that must be approved by six out of eight council members. A longer lease triggers a citywide referendum.

A view of the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on June 13.
A view of the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on June 13. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

After five years, the winning developer could ask for a public vote on a longer-term lease, seek another five years or get bought out by the city.

Estimates three years ago put the cost of remaking the marina at $30 million.

Charles Adkinson climbs aboard his 61-foot boat, where he and his wife and two daughters live at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.
Charles Adkinson climbs aboard his 61-foot boat, where he and his wife and two daughters live at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Prior proposals to privatize marina operations haven’t gone over well with the marina’s slip holders. There were fears that slips for smaller boats would be eliminated to accommodate yachts and more lucrative rent. And they felt left out of the city’s plans.

“We are a distinct group of people here that are not well-represented,” said Charles Adkinson, 46, who works in video production. He sold his family’s home near the Treasure Island Causeway to move to the marina.

With the city of St. Petersburg in the background, Charles Adkinson relaxes on his 61-foot boat, where he and his wife live at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.
With the city of St. Petersburg in the background, Charles Adkinson relaxes on his 61-foot boat, where he and his wife live at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

He lives on a 61-foot, three-deck trawler with his wife, Crystal, 41, a “boatmaker,” and two daughters, 12 and 14. “Where we get scared about this is that we are not ready to leave yet, and if something changes, and they privatize it, and it’s suddenly $5,000 a month, what do we do?

“Like, we have nowhere to go.”

Crystal Adkinson heads down the dock Monday as she returns a cart after using it to take groceries to the boat she lives on with her husband, Charles, and two daughters at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.
Crystal Adkinson heads down the dock Monday as she returns a cart after using it to take groceries to the boat she lives on with her husband, Charles, and two daughters at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Zeoli said neighborhood meetings will begin when a prospective developer has been identified. He said the city is not ceding control of design and construction or how the marina is operated. And the city will require proposals to include plans for smaller vessels.

Not all boaters oppose the city’s plan to go private. But they want more amenities, in addition to needed repairs. Residents said the power to their vessels — the lines run beneath the docks — get shut off every high tide to stop the risk of electrocution.

Kimberly Jamieson said it’s possible to renovate the harbor without displacing small boats. She once lived in a marina in Palmetto that was privatized by Safe Harbor Marinas, the past and current bidder.

“Everything stayed pretty reasonable,” said Jamieson, 57, a hairdresser who lives on a 35-foot cruiser with her two dogs. “They did it in small doses so that people can get moved around, and I don’t think anyone got kicked out.

“They did a really good job. And you know, we can just hope for the best.”

Zeoli, however, said that no matter what course the city chooses, “significant rate increases” are expected to maintain the marina for years to come.

“We’re very focused on affordability for this marina as well,” he said. “That being said, the rates have got to be commensurate with what it’s going to take to improve the facility.”

“The lower-income side of the marina”

Jill Godfrey was born in St. Petersburg. She grew up in Bay Pines and took a rowboat to school at what is now Madeira Beach Fundamental K-8, parking it under the dock at the McDonald’s restaurant next door.

Jill Godfrey and her 2-year-old pup, Chance, look out from her 28-foot Bluewater Triton boat, which she calls The Dolphin Dancer, as a storm rolls in at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on Monday. Godfrey has lived on her boat in the marina for three years.
Jill Godfrey and her 2-year-old pup, Chance, look out from her 28-foot Bluewater Triton boat, which she calls The Dolphin Dancer, as a storm rolls in at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on Monday. Godfrey has lived on her boat in the marina for three years. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

She danced professionally around the world before returning home, finding an apartment on Fourth Street North.

The rent kept going up during the pandemic and Godfrey was having trouble finding work during the lockdown. She overheard her neighbor talking about buying a sailboat. Out of necessity, she bought a 28-foot Bluewater Triton she calls The Dolphin Dancer and colored everything turquoise.

Some residents have boats that have many of the comforts of a house. Godfrey’s is more like a college dorm.

Godfrey, 60, doesn’t have a shower or an oven. Only a hot plate, toaster, coffee maker, minifridge, an ice-making freezer and her dock dog, Chance, who prefers land.

“You’re basically on the lower-income side of the marina,” she said. “Right here on Dock 1 are the small boats. … So we’re like the trailer park marina.” Just as mobile home park residents don’t own the land beneath their trailers, the people who live here don’t own the water under their boats.

Out of necessity, Jill Godfrey bought a 28-foot Bluewater Triton she calls The Dolphin Dancer and colored everything turquoise.
Out of necessity, Jill Godfrey bought a 28-foot Bluewater Triton she calls The Dolphin Dancer and colored everything turquoise. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Godfrey shattered her elbow a year and a half ago while working at Home Depot. She makes $230 a week working at a dance store and teaching classes and tries to find other production work.

“Every year they’re raising it 10%,” she said of the slip rent. “And in a couple of years, I definitely won’t be able to afford it. And if I can’t find more jobs, I may not even be able to afford it for a few more months.”

In St. Petersburg these days, living on a boat docked in the marina is cheaper than owning a home. But some residents have high insurance costs. They have to stay on top of upkeep and maintenance, and that can be costly. At the start of this year, the marina began requiring liability insurance and proof of mobility, that the vessel is operable.

“There’s not a million-dollar boat on this dock right now,” said Charles Adkinson. “But how many million-dollar houses are there between here and any neighborhood in St. Pete?”

Marina residents dispute the notion of being considered “rent-dodgers.”

“It’s unfortunate,” said James Coe, 54, a retired engineer who lives on Dock 4 with his wife, Katherine. ”But it’s like with anything. You got a few that don’t do things well, and it gives everyone else a bad name.”

And they point out that they contribute to St. Petersburg’s coffers: About $300,000 of marina fees goes back into the city’s general fund every year as a return on investment, plus payments for general and administrative costs.

Said Fay, the resident since 1997: “There’s a considerable amount of cash flow out of this marina, into the community at large.”

Karen and Mark Fay head to dinner after leaving the 44-foot sailboat they live on at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on Monday. They have been married for 50 years and have lived on their boat in the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina since 1997.
Karen and Mark Fay head to dinner after leaving the 44-foot sailboat they live on at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on Monday. They have been married for 50 years and have lived on their boat in the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina since 1997. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Crown jewel

Hurricane Ian last year was too much for Keri Vinson. Her neighbor’s boat got stuck under a finger pier and was left tilting to one side. His mast got caught up in hers. Neighbors managed to untangle the mess. Her portside piling snapped and she said it took the city four to five months to replace it.

Vinson has lived at the marina for seven years. Her low credit score and $27,000 income setting up concert equipment keep her from living on land. After the death of her fiance two years ago, she wants to sell her sailboat and get a recreational vehicle.

“You got to worry about if you’re going to even have a home to come home to, because that’s my home,” said Vinson, 53. “So if it sinks, I’m homeless. That’s a scary thought.”

Pilings and finger piers are due for replacement. During storms, water sloshes above the piers. Residents point out uneven, sinking sidewalks marked with a traffic cone, bathrooms that are often out of order — and wharf rats.

A crack is visible on a condemned boat slip on the south basin of the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on Feb. 16.
A crack is visible on a condemned boat slip on the south basin of the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on Feb. 16. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Still, the residents say they want to be in the heart of it all in St. Petersburg, within walking distance to everything. It’s even worth jockeying for spaces in their designated parking lot at Demens Landing when the Saturday Morning Market is held at Al Lang Stadium.

“I just feel really blessed that I have this less than 400 square feet, that I can be on the water and pay my fair share to be here,” said Jamieson, the hairdresser who lives with her dogs. “And nobody knows for how long that’s gonna be. But I do think it is very much a blessing to be able to be here.”