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More city council members express concerns over marina plan

Brian Hartz

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St. Petersburg Municipal Marina's South Basin.

After pumping the brakes on the Tropicana Field redevelopment plan, an emboldened St. Petersburg City Council has indicated it would like to hear more details about an alternative approach to improving the city’s municipal marina, which has been targeted for a controversial five-year, $30 million overhaul by an out-of-state company.

At its Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee meeting Thursday, council members heard an update from Joe Zeoli, the city’s managing director of administration and finance, who had been asked to come up with a financial plan that assumes the city, instead of Safe Harbor Development, takes on the marina redevelopment project. Option A, as he called the SHD plan, would cost $30 million and make SHD liable for all cost overruns and future redevelopment costs. Option B, which would see the city finance and execute a plan similar to SHD’s, would cost $34 million and result in the city absorbing expenses related to cost overruns and future redevelopment.

Option A would also guarantee costs to the city while Option B would not. “We shed financial risks” under Option A, Zeoli said, adding that if the city were to go it alone on the project, the marina would require support from the general fund for several years.

“There’s no way we could raise rates fast enough,” he said. “Under Option B, there’s a reduction in cash inflows. Return on investment will not be available for several years.”

Gina Driscoll

Council Member Gina Driscoll, whose district includes the marina, questioned whether city staff were truly offering an “apples to apples” comparison, saying the city could come up with a less expensive proposal that called for only essential repairs and upgrades, and fewer “extras,” as she referred to some of the elements of SHD’s plan.

“We have not seen any formal plan” for what the city would do, she said.

Zeoli countered by saying that anything the city came up with would closely mirror the marina master plan that was developed in 2017 by Moffatt & Nichol, a global infrastructure advisory firm. That master plan, with some modifications, was used as the basis of SHD’s proposal. He also advised Driscoll that SHD’s plan would actually cost less than what Moffatt & Nichol called for in its study of the marina.

“Their plan had a lot of extras,” Driscoll said. “We should take a look at [what it would cost] if the city did renovations rather than an entire redevelopment. Fix up what we have, do some upgrades but not the whole nine yards like Safe Harbor is doing.”

Thursday’s meeting was also notable in that more council members seemed to look askance at what SHD has brought to the table. Council Chairman Ed Montanari and District 1 Council Member Robert Blackmon both voiced fresh concerns about the project as it has been proposed.

Ed Montanari

“We have two extremes,” Montanari said. “One is Safe Harbor; the other is the city doing everything. I know of other municipal marinas where it’s more of a middle ground: The city builds the facility but then has a management contract with an operator.”

Montanari likened the project to the new St. Pete Pier, which was built by the city but whose commercial real estate spaces are managed by Colliers International. But Zeoli said the Pier suffered from significant cost overruns that hit the city’s bottom line. “That’s the risk we are trying to avoid,” he said.

Blackmon said he’s trying to keep an open mind about the project but his concerns have grown after receiving “about 50 negative emails, and just one positive” from residents. He also said that cost overruns could be an incentive for SHD to cut corners or find other ways to boost revenue, such as higher-than-advertised charges for slip rentals. “In general,” he said, “a private company is always going to have incentive to raise prices as much as possible.”

On the topic of slip rental fees, Zeoli’s analysis concluded that the city — if it were to take on the marina redevelopment — would have to raise rates by 12 percent per year during the first three years of the project, and then 10 percent in years four and five. Under SHD’s proposal, slip rental fees would go up 10 percent annually over the five years. Also, under Option B, the city’s annual revenue from the marina would be $1.8 million, whereas under Option A, the SHD plan, the city would bring in $2.4 million per year.

Zeoli’s findings did not appease Driscoll, who continued to assail what she perceived as a lack of alternative thinking. Under SHD’s plan, she said, “there are a lot of embellishments, plans for a dining option and things that are extra. What would it cost for us to do the basics? Fix what’s broken, or do a more extensive renovation without all the extra touristy stuff — the elements that would attract visitors, for instance, who do not have boats.”

She added, “There’s a lot that came with the proposal and it was all very intriguing. But I want to address how we look at what we need, address what that costs, and then ask if we have enough for the other things that we want. I want to look at it in terms of basic upgrades and repairs. I am looking for how we can be responsible and fix what’s broken without getting too fancy.”

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin asked Driscoll to “identify what you see as ‘extras’” before emphasizing that having the marina run as a profitable commercial enterprise doesn’t constitute giving away the city’s waterfront. “We think the [Safe Harbor] plan reflects what needs to happen to keep the marina’s standards high, where we need them to be,” she said. “This is not something we would renovate with Band-Aids. It’s in a state of disrepair that requires the elements that have been outlined.”

Prior to adjourning the meeting, Montanari said he would like to meet in private with Zeoli to go over the numbers and discuss council members’ concerns in more detail.

“I am just skeptical as to where we are,” he said. “It is such a stark contrast between the city doing it and Safe Harbor doing it.”

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