Despite numerous objections from residents and the trepidation of council members, the City of St. Petersburg is officially furthering negotiations with Safe Harbor Development (SHD) on the renovation and operation of the municipal marina.
In a split vote, and with Councilmember Lissette Hanewicz absent, the city council approved a resolution for city administration to confirm a guaranteed project cost, update the five-year lease agreement, add additional requirements for saltwater expertise in both operations and development and explore language to address future discussions of a long-term lease option.
Thursday’s approval follows an April Committee of the Whole meeting in which council members split on whether to continue conversations with SHD. The officials voted 5-3 to pursue more information during that meeting, with Hanewicz voting against further discussions with the Tennessee-based developer. Councilmember Floyd said he would still like more information on a potential deal but was now leaning towards the city maintaining control over the public asset.
“After the COW (committee of the whole) … I have since come along to agree with Councilmember (Ed) Montanari a little bit more,” said Floyd. “What I want to see is the city maintain as much control over its waterfront as possible.”
City Administrator Rob Gerdes said his team is working on finalizing a proforma for the city renovating the marina and said he would have it to the council as soon as possible. Gerdes also thanked the residents who spoke during the open forum, despite their unanimous disdain for SHD.
Common complaints from marina stakeholders included the lack of an open request for proposal (RFP) and SHD’s absence of saltwater development experience, including with marine life native to St. Petersburg. The Tennessee-based developer typically builds and maintains freshwater marinas on lakes.
SHD owns, operates and develops several Margaritaville properties, and some residents bemoaned the potential intersection of the brand with the city’s marina. The company is also vying to rehab and operate a marina in Ft. Myers. SHD Chairman Darby Campbell pitched a Margaritaville theme to that city council on April 28, the same day as the St. Petersburg COW meeting.
As part of his presentation, Campbell showed the Ft. Myers City Council a rendering of what he called the St. Petersburg Marina’s fuel house adorned in colors similar to Margaritaville’s branding as an example of the company’s current work.
Montanari noted St. Petersburg’s founders went to great lengths to protect its waterfront. As a vital community asset, he wants to ensure the city remains responsible for its maintenance and operation.
“We absolutely have to get this right,” said Montanari. “I will not be supporting this motion to move forward on this issue, and I want to urge my colleagues to make sure we protect our waterfront.”
Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders clarified that the motion would not negate the option of issuing an RFP at a later date, which the city attorney confirmed.
Council Chair Gina Driscoll then reiterated that the council was only voting to hear more details on an agreement with SHD. She then stated that “this is not the company that I think is in the best interest of our city to move forward doing business with.”
“I was open to the possibility of having a third party work with us to revitalize and renovate the marina,” she added. “But with a different organization, and I would like to have an RFP.”
Driscoll noted all council members were present during the COW meeting in which they voted 5-3 to move the action forward. While Thursday’s city council meeting also requires a simple majority, once the administration finalizes contractual details and brings the item back to the council, it will require a supermajority of six yes votes.
Driscoll said the council was delaying the inevitable and creating more work for city staff before they must eventually start the process anew.
“I would like to skip that part because we have talked about this long enough,” she said. “The votes are not there, and in an effort to be efficient and finally get some forward movement on progress for our municipal marina, I am voting no on this.”
Floyd then asked Gerdes if the city administration wanted the council to push the matter forward despite a “very high possibility that it’s not going forward in the future.”
Gerdes said the administration would “very much” like to continue the process and utilize additional opportunities to work with council members, staff and the community before bringing a finalized lease back for a vote.
Councilmember Brandi Gabbard called it “incredibly” unfair to think the issue would automatically fail. She added that it was also out of line to assume how Hanewicz would vote based on the COW meeting.
“There is a motion on the floor – if it doesn’t pass, so be it,” said Gabbard. “But if it does, then Councilmember Hanewicz has the right to be able to change her mind from how she voted in the COW.”
The city council voted 5-2 for the administration to gather more information and finalize contractual details with SHD. Driscoll and Montanari voted no, with Hanewicz absent.
Following the April 28 COW meeting, the St. Pete Catalyst reached out to SHD for comment. The company has yet to respond.