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Municipal Marina redevelopment plan dead in the water

Mark Parker



St. Petersburg City Council vehemently opposed the latest agreement to redevelop the city’s municipal marina, which called for a 25-year lease with an out-of-state company the city has no previous relationship with.

At Thursday’s council meeting, council members heard a first reading on the city’s plan to hand over management and redevelopment of the public marina to a private contractor – Safe Harbor Development (SHD). SHD’s headquarters are in Tennessee – a “landlocked state,” as one resident who spoke in opposition pointed out. If approved, the referendum would then go to a public hearing on Aug. 12 before finally making it on the Nov. 2 ballot. Despite a presentation touting benefits of the agreement and a long-term lease by Joe Zeoli, the city’s managing director of administration and finance, council members would not take up a vote.

While everyone agreed the marina is in critical need of repairs and upgrades, the 25-year term proved to be a non-starter as every council member was opposed to the plan – including those who were initially on board with a five-year lease.

Councilmember Brandi Gabbard said she was initially open to the five-year lease but was now “concerned and frustrated.” She said the original agreement made financial sense, and was optimistic about including necessary seawall repairs.

“For this to be turned around and put to a 25-year referendum – with an entity we don’t have a current relationship with or a current track record with – I’m incredibly concerned,” said Gabbard. “I’m very concerned about how we got here.”

Gabbard went on to ask if the city council’s legal team or anyone else present could name a time when a 25-year lease was signed with a company the city had no prior relationship with. Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin explained that city administration would prefer to have a five-year lease which the public could then make an informed decision about extending. However, when faced with a decision to either accept a 25-year lease or for the city to handle redevelopment of the marina on its own, the administration still believes the longer lease is the best option.

Gabbard asked again if there has ever been a time that a 25-year referendum, with an entity the city has no track record with, was put forth to voters. Tomalin said she was not aware of one.

Councilmember Robert Blackmon reiterated his stance that such a valuable public asset should be kept public. Blackmon said that the city should “bond out” and is giving up “any of our rights to ROI for a renovation loan.” He added that a representative of the Chamber of Commerce and multiple other people changed their opinions to the point where “nobody is for the proposal put before us.”

Councilmember Gina Driscoll, whose district includes the marina, said that her constituents have repeatedly told her they are not in favor of the plan. Driscoll said the city should have focused on completing the necessary upgrades on its own and that “as councilmember Blackmon mentioned earlier, there is a way to make the numbers work.”

While unanimous in their disdain for the 25-year lease, city council split on whether necessary marina renovations are an issue for the next mayor. Councilmember Darden Rice called every stage of the marina process “unusual” and thinks it is time for a “reset.”

“I think this a job for the next mayor,” said Rice. She added that the next mayor should work with the public and city council more openly and collaboratively.

Tomalin countered that the city’s other marinas are under management agreements and operate quite well. She added that the downtown marina deserves the opportunity to thrive as much of the others that have been allowed that process. She also said that the process began over two years ago and has included as much public and city council input as any other project. Tomalin finished by noting that Kriseman would continue to work until the end of his term on all issues.

“The same way he works and directs his team to fill potholes and mow grass and manage water quality until his last day of service, he’s going to continue to advance the city towards its long-term goals,” said Tomalin.

Council Chair Ed Montanari called the marina a “jewel of the waterfront and critical asset to the community” and said that “doing nothing is not an option.” However, he said he was not in favor of the previous five-year agreement and “does not like the new agreement even more.” He also said that this should be an issue for the new mayor and called for more public involvement. Montari explained that he usually votes to move things forward on a first reading to get to a public hearing, but “just can’t support this at this time.”

Blackmon then motioned to take up a vote, but it was not seconded. Blackmon lamented the lack of council voting on anything during the project and said he wanted to get the “no” votes on record. He added that the issue should not wait for the next mayor and wants a renovation plan immediately.

“As far as clarity, it’s been clear,” said Blackmon. “Make no mistake – just because we haven’t voted on it, none of these plans will pass this city council.”

Montanari said that he did not want to “leave the discussion open without an end in sight,” to which Gabbard proposed a motion to refer a “thorough conversation regarding the marina to PSI (Public Services and Infrastructure) or any other relevant committee.” Councilmember Amy Foster immediately seconded the motion. Rice announced there was an open slot for the PSI committee on Sept. 16. City council voted unanimously to send the discussion to the committee.

Zeoli then offered for the city to put out bids to come up with concrete answers as to how much it would cost the city to conduct the renovation on its own. Tomalin said the projections would be “hardened” by accepting bids, but that projections have previously been submitted to city council several times.








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  1. Avatar

    James Dandar

    November 17, 2021at3:00 pm

    We need more Live aboard slips!

    I was about to purchase a boat to live on at the Marina as this would be a much more affordable option for me.

    However I was told there are no slips available, a 3 year wait list?!?!

    Why did we spend 100 million dollars on a pier instead of adding additional live aboard slips at the marina? This brings in revenue and I would have stayed there for years.

  2. Avatar

    Hazeltine Hugh

    August 7, 2021at9:26 pm

    SHD of Knoxville built and operates the Margaritaville Hotel in Downtown Nashville. They have a Buffet Themed Marina called Port of Indecision on Lake Lanier north of Atlanta. They are building a Margaritaville Restaurant next to their Elm Hill Marina on Percy Priest Lake near Nashville. They have a Margaritaville Hotel next to an Amusement Park in Pigeon Forge, TN. During the public Zoom meeting this past winter, Darby Cambell of SHD proposed a Margaritaville theme for St. Petersburg.

  3. Avatar

    Hal Freedman

    August 7, 2021at3:10 pm

    Was this the group with ties to Jimmy Buffett? Did Jimmy actually call the Mayor to push this along? Margaritaville on the NE tip of Demens Landing? YUCK!

  4. Avatar

    Hazeltine Hugh

    August 6, 2021at4:02 pm

    In April I met with SHD representative John Finch in Nashville. I asked him if Joe Zeoli prepared them for the political storm that this would ensue? He answer was no.

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