By Dale Martin
Fernandina Beach City Manager
February 3, 2022
Although described in its entirety by others, I will offer my comments on the remainder of the City Commission’s annual Goal-Setting Workshop (conducted on January 26). My previous article discussed the first two issues of the day, staff wages and capital project funding, utilizing money from a possible voter-approved bond and from federal funding through the American Rescue Plan.
The third issue on the workshop agenda was further consideration of the waterfront. The discussion of the waterfront is a placeholder on the annual agenda. At the workshops, the direction is usually pretty clear, decisive, and unanimous on what is the desired outcome. The difficulty is actually the intervening eleven months when, like the tides and the winds, opinions and support ebbs and flows and comes from different directions.
Based upon numerous efforts of public engagement, it seems as if improvements are desired at the Amelia River waterfront, but the improvements are routinely “torpedoed” (a concept that rose to prominence at the conclusion of the workshop) when the improvements are not “perfect”: whether the improvements are not designed by the “right” person, don’t include what some people want, do include what some people want, or represent “change.” After my six years of annual prioritization by several City Commissions to beautify the waterfront, not much has changed. The 2023 Goal-Setting Workshop will be scheduled for late January next year.
Despite the lack of a strategic effort for waterfront efforts, City staff sought specific clarification from the City Commission on the Commissioners desired resolution regarding the City’s lease with Atlantic Seafood. In accordance with the existing lease, the City provided required notification (180 days) of the pending construction of the new seawall and riverwalk improvements. To further clarify, the City’s notice did not indicate an intent to demolish the Atlantic Seafood structure. As currently designed, the segment of the riverwalk connecting to the boat ramp from the south does indicate the removal of the structure, but it is possible, if demolition is not desired, to rout the riverwalk slightly further to the west and avoid the structure. With the age and condition of the current structure, though, it is generally preferred to have the structure removed and replaced.
Also under the terms of the lease, if the leasehold of Atlantic Seafood desires additional space, the lease must be renegotiated, which is where the discussions between the leaseholder and the City currently sit. At the workshop, consensus was sought to determine what is an acceptable footprint for a new structure. After lengthy discussion, the Commissioners decided that a 1,500 square foot building with an accompanying 500 square foot (public) deck would be satisfactory. It was subsequently clarified that the structure would be limited to only one story (although the rooftop, if desired, could be utilized for additional seating). The leaseholder has been informed of those parameters, so City staff will await a timely response from the leaseholder.
Following that discussion, the City Commission turned its attention to the Marina. The Marina continues to be a financial anchor: charges, fees, and grants do not provide sufficient revenue to sustain the Marina, therefore requiring an annual subsidy from the City (taxpayers). The financial challenges of the Marina are primarily related to ongoing debt service- Marina projects tend to be costly. The current Marina debt is approximately $15 million, with about $11,000,000 from formal bank loans, $1 million from a formal loan from the City’s Utilities Department, and a $3 million “cash deficit” also covered by the Utilities Department (in order to maintain a balanced budget, sufficient funds are provided from the Utilities Department at the end of each fiscal year, but then transferred back to the Utilities Department immediately thereafter, placing an “IOU” on the Marina).
With the City’s successful efforts to secure reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the State of Florida, the City Commission pledged to utilize the $7.5 million reimbursement to reduce the outstanding bank loans. This effort will reduce the total Marina debt in half. Even with that action, though, the remaining debt service stills hampers the Marina’s financial status. Given that, the City Commission will soon consider the “write-off” of the cash deficit IOU to the Utilities Department. If approved, the debt service for the Marina becomes more manageable, but it is still likely that rates, fees, and charges will have to rise to lessen the need for taxpayer subsidies to the Marina (as such higher fees have been implemented at the Airport and Golf Course for the same purpose). It is intended that the users of those facilities, not taxpayers, provide the necessary revenue to operate those facilities.
The day concluded with a short discussion about affordable housing. It is becoming a stark realization that affordable housing, while a desired and noble goal for our community (and nation), will be difficult to pursue. “Affordable housing,” as statutorily-defined, is significantly higher than what many perceive as “workforce housing.” With dwindling availability and rising development costs, the City likely cannot have a marked impact on the affordability of housing.
The workshop provided an opportunity to delve slightly deeper into several topics that needed further discussion than the time typically allocated at a regular City Commission meeting. It will be an intriguing eleven months until the next annual workshop.