On the waterfront the saga continues

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 6, 2020

Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC) continued to focus attention on the needs of the downtown waterfront and City Marina at their May 5, 2020 Regular Meeting.  

The FBCC unanimously passed Resolution 2020-63 approving a work order with Passero Associates, LLC in the amount of $106,500 for design and environmental permitting support services related to the Amelia Riverfront resiliency, stabilization and living shoreline from southeast corner of parking lot D to Atlantic Seafood. Funds will be reimbursed to the City through grant award titled “Fernandina Beach Stormwater Shoreline Stabilization” from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.  

The FBCC also passed unanimously Resolution 2020-64 approving a work order with Passero Associates, LLC in the amount of $102,000 to complete a waterfront stabilization analysis and building condition assessment of Brett’s Waterway Café. The study will include a detailed Building Condition Assessment for Brett’s Waterway Café identifying current building deficiencies, a recommendation for corrections to deficiencies and probable costs for corrections. The Building Assessment will also assess and identify deficiencies with waterfront stabilization (bulkhead under Brett’s Waterway Café) between parking lots A and B. Funding is included in the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Economic Improvements account in FY 2019/2020.

Although three previous studies have been done on the condition of pilings beneath Brett’s Waterway Cafe, no City Commission has gone beyond the study to address costs for remedying the deficiencies and shoring up the bulkhead.  Also, unspent monies from an earlier CDBG grant awarded for the purpose of waterfront improvement have been sitting in a fund for several years.  Because this money has not been spent, the City has been prohibited from applying for new CDBG grants.

City Manager Dale Martin reported that the City has applied for a $27M federal grant under the Water Resources Development Act to support shoreline stabilization and other waterfront issues.  This act authorizes Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) civil works activities and builds on previous reform efforts to ensure improvements are made to the Nation’s ports, inland waterways, locks, dams, flood protection, ecosystem restoration, and other water resources infrastructure. Congressman John Rutherford is backing this request.

Commission discussion on marina debt reduction

Commissioner Chip Ross also presented commissioners with options he had identified for restructuring marina debt over the next 10-20 years and sought their suggestions and input.  There was discussion, but no consensus, on options that Ross provided. 

[Ross tends to be pessimistic that FEMA will reimburse the City the $7M it originally greenlighted for post Matthew repairs.  Apparently FEMA has “lost” the original approved application and has now reversed itself on covering many of the expenses.  The problem apparently lies in the regional FEMA office in Atlanta.  The City has been assisted by Congressman John Rutherford in relentlessly pushing FEMA to rule on the City’s application.  If they issue a denial, the City will then initiate an appeal, again with help from Rutherford.]

Ross continued to advance his support for landside commercial activity to bring in additional revenue to the marina.  He also supported asking Nassau County for assistance, since residents of the County also use the City’s boat ramp and avail themselves of waterfront activities.

Ross asked Commissioners to agree to direct staff to investigate his options and any other options they wanted to bring forward in order to find ways to reduce marina debt.

Vice Mayor Len Kreger replied, “I have full confidence in the City Manager and the Finance Department that they will look at all these things, and I’m sure they are.  I expect we’ll see that in the Budget proposal.”  He also suggested that the debt for the City’s purchase of the Wade Vuturo property should be moved from the marina to the general fund, since the intention is to use the property for park, not marina.

Commissioner Phil Chapman agreed with Kreger.  “The City Manager is the expert in this,” he said.  “We pay him to come up with solutions. The marina is a hole in the river in which we pay money into, and that is not going to stop.  Some people have grandiose ideas for moving forward, but they all cost money.  I’m also looking at the Golf Course and the Airport.  I don’t think we can look at one part of the Budget without looking at the whole picture.  It’s the City Manager’s job to present that whole picture to us.”

Commissioner Mike Lednovich suggested that the City write off the $3M loan from Utility Funds to the Marina in light of the $15M reserve the Utility Department currently holds.  He said, “We should forgive the loan to ourselves.  Whether it comes out of my right pocket or my left pocket, it’s City money.”  He also said that he expects the $7M reimbursement from FEMA.  Lednovich said that with these two factors taken into consideration, marina debt is reduced to $5M.

Ross explained why he believed the debt to Utilities should not be written off.  In the event of a major hurricane, while utility infrastructure would not be destroyed, the income upon which utilities depend could be cut off as houses are destroyed or otherwise left unoccupied.

Lednovich said that he has been told that dockage fees and fuel sales are not sufficient to make the City Marina profitable. He raised again the idea of building a dry boat storage facility in what are now waterfront Parking Lots C&D, citing a comment from a boat captain on the revenues produced from those at the Amelia Island Marina. He took issue with earlier statements that such a facility would not fit there.  “That is City property, sitting idle, which generates zero revenue,” he said.  “Do we want a park or something driving revenue?”

Commissioner Ross responded to Lednovich’s suggestions. He said that the marina can be profitable, as it was the year before Matthew struck.  But the operational revenue is not enough to pay down existing debt.

“We’ve talked about dry storage before,” Ross said, “and we seem to keep coming back over and over again to an issue that has been resolved.”  He explained why, although a footprint for such a facility would fit, height requirements along the waterfront (35 feet) work against such an idea.  Also, he explained the associated costs necessary to buy equipment to get boats in and out of storage and into the water.  “We have no place along the water to launch boats from dry storage, because the water along the shoreline is mostly mud.  To make the needed improvements and purchase boat moving equipment would cost millions and millions of dollars.”  Ross asked how commissioners could stop revisiting matters “over and over” that have been fully discussed and decided.  “I don’t think this is particularly helpful,” he said.

Ross said that he has full confidence that the City Manager will come up with a plan but that he wants to resolve the marina debt issue to avoid past practices of many commissions of making short term fund transfers to cover the debt for accounting purposes at the end of the Fiscal Year.  He also reiterated his support for combining commercial activity with a waterfront park.  “I’ve been talking about this for a year, but it never seems to get any traction,” he said.

Kreger reiterated his support for the City Manager.  “You can say you have confidence in the City Manager, but you’re trying to tell him what to do.  So let’s let him come up with a plan, and then we can look at it.”

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