St. Petersburg City Council’s Public Safety and Infrastructure Committee met Thursday morning for a lengthy presentation and discussion about a controversial plan to outsource redevelopment of the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina to a private company.
The meeting began with a warning, issued by committee chairwoman Darden Rice, for attendees to observe the rules of decorum and not wave signs. Although smatterings of applause broke out from time to time during the discussion — mainly when a council member voiced some sort of criticism about the proposal — there were no significant disruptions.
A Tennessee-based property development firm, Safe Harbor Development, has been chosen by Mayor Rick Kriseman to carry out a $30 million upgrade of the marina, depending on whether city council approves a five-year lease with the firm that will be voted on next week. SHD’s initial plan called for the elimination of boat slips under 30 feet length and significant increases in slip rental fees. While fees will still likely go up, SHD CEO Darby Campbell, who attended Thursday’s meeting in person, has said he will find a way to accommodate owners of smaller vessels.
Campbell, addressing the committee, called the proposal “the best deal the city could ever ask for,” adding, “you’re getting my resources, my money and my risk for five years. And if you don’t like me, you can tell me to go away.”
Rice said she liked the idea of a public-private partnership with SHD because it lessens risk for the city and makes it easier to fund other, more urgent infrastructure projects — like stormwater and wastewater management — that affect all of St. Pete.
“There’s no question on whether the marina needs to be fixed,” she said. “There’s a lot of deferred maintenance. The fact that we haven’t raised rates in a while, it’s starting to show — it’s looking a little shabby. Within reason, I think even the boat owners would admit that some sort of small increase or incremental increase over the years is necessary for the level of improvements that we need.”
However, Rice, who said she is a boater, balked at the prospect of some boat owners being “priced out” without sufficient public engagement and buy-in.
“Are people comfortable with the change?” She asked. “Do they feel like the change is happening on their terms or on someone else’s? I’m not sure we’ve answered that adequately for the public, because I don’t hear any organized constituency that supports this. I only hear organized constituencies in opposition.”
That last line was greeted with applause. However, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin voiced support for the SHD proposal and said it would be unlikely, if not impossible, to obtain the “full endorsement” of the constituency that enjoys the marina “and is satisfied with it in its current iteration.” She added, “We have the very hard task of managing responsibility with popularity” and said the marina situation calls for “bold leadership” to move the city and its waterfront in the right direction.
“I agree that communication is critical, and we have to bring constituents along,” Tomalin said, “but as long as there is an entertainment of the option of no change, we are just not dealing in an intellectually honest scenario. There can be no ‘no’ vote for the marina work.”
To that point, Council Member Gina Driscoll, whose district includes the marina, questioned whether the city, rather than SHD, should undertake the facility’s needed improvements.
“We haven’t really taken the time to dive in more deeply into the option of the city maintaining complete control of the marina and maintaining responsibility, taking this project on ourselves,” she said. “I want to be more confident than I am right now in making the decision to engage a third party in this waterfront asset that we have.”
Driscoll went on to suggest that, given the scope of SHD’s proposal, the matter should be decided by a referendum to be held at the general election in November.
“We’re not just fixing up the docks or asking someone else to fix up the docks and run the property,” she said. “We’re looking at completely re-imagining the marina, which I think is a great idea, but going to referendum would fall in line with the spirit of the [city] charter, if not the letter. And I think that needs to be given serious consideration before we move forward.”
Driscoll also suggested the city could save money by doing a more modest round of improvements — a renovation as opposed to a complete redevelopment aimed at making the marina “a tourist attraction.” Such a scaled-down plan, she said, would create “better value for price paid for those who actually use the marina.”
Joe Zeoli, the city’s managing director of administration and finance, said a piecemeal approach to the marina wouldn’t be feasible and would, in fact, deviate from the 2017 master plan for the facility that was developed in conjunction with Moffatt & Nichol, a consulting firm that specializes in infrastructure design and development. Zeoli said the city, in a separate project, will need to spend $10-$13 million on seawall improvements and that trying to do that while also upgrading the marina’s docks, piers, walkways, finger piers, bath houses, the ship’s store and utility systems would be too disruptive.
“The master plan that was prepared for the marina is consistent with the concept plan of Safe Harbor,” Zeoli said. “And quite honestly, that would be the plan that the city would move forward with. If we do the restoration, it would not make sense to do a portion. These are essential improvements.”
City Council will vote on the lease agreement with SHD at its April 15 meeting. Because the lease deals with waterfront property, supermajority approval is required, meaning at least six, not five, council members must vote in the affirmative.