St. Petersburg has no greater asset than its downtown waterfront — as area residents were reminded again, only last weekend, at the Firestone Grand Prix. That’s why an emerging plan to upgrade the city’s municipal marina has such broad implications for St. Petersburg’s economy and appeal. Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council need to proceed carefully, and with broad public input, to further beautify this space while protecting the city’s finances and its control over this invaluable property.
Kriseman’s administration is looking to lease the marina to Knoxville, Tenn.-based, Safe Harbor Development in exchange for Safe Harbor’s investing millions of dollars into needed upgrades. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Josh Solomon reports, the mayor maintains that contracting with an outside entity would save the city money, preserve its borrowing power for broader citywide projects and limit its exposure to any legal liability and cost overruns. But the arrangement, which could leave Safe Harbor in control of the marina for decades while paying rent to the city, faces skepticism from some City Council members and boat owners, who question why the city would farm out the waterfront site and not undertake the improvements itself.
There are pluses and minuses to each option. While there is general agreement the marina needs work, the decision over who pays, and who controls the property, have far-reaching implications for a city whose downtown waterfront is a crown jewel. The city and Safe Harbor estimate it would cost at least $30 million to make the necessary upgrades. The administration is seeking the City Council’s approval for a five-year lease of the marina, with the intention of putting a long-term lease to a referendum after that, allowing Safe Harbor to recoup its investment over time. If the city failed to renew Safe Harbor’s initial lease after the new docks were built, it would owe a termination fee, which starts at $37.75 million and shrinks each year.
One way or another, the city’s stake would be substantial. Safe Harbor plans to raise slip rental rates 10 percent annually for five years to fund the project. City Council members and boaters worry that could price out some people, but city officials said St. Petersburg would have to raise rates, too, if it undertook the work — and possibly charge even more than what Safe Harbor proposes.
The city, Safe Harbor and boaters all have an interest in this decision — but so do St. Petersburg residents and businesses, who benefit from the appeal that the waterfront provides, both as a public amenity and as a signature backdrop to a thriving downtown. Kriseman’s administration said the mayor would bring the item to a vote after it answers the remaining questions from City Council members. The presentation should include a clear comparison of the costs, benefits and drawbacks of each option, including the rate increases for boaters, the schedule for repairs and any design, public access or other changes that are anticipated for the waterfront. Officials also need to explain whether $30 million in improvements would meaningfully crimp the city’s ability to borrow for other projects.
Because the contract involves waterfront property, which enjoys special protections in St. Petersburg, the measure would need a six-vote supermajority of the eight-member council to move ahead. Kriseman has a self-interest in gathering the widest support possible for the most promising proposal. As City Council Chair Ed Montanari said this month: “Our marina is a critical part of our waterfront. ... We need to get this right.” That requires soliciting public input and taking the time necessary to make the best decision.
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