Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 12, 2020
Once again, the Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC) deliberated on key topics on the minds of citizens under the discussion tab at the end of their February 4, 2020 Regular Meeting. This time it was the Amelia Riverfront, which also morphed into a discussion about the City Marina.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich expressed concerns that as the various city committees review the waterfront plan accepted by consensus at the FBCC January visioning session, they will not readily understand what is marked “event building.” Lednovich said it needs to be clarified that a private business owner will build the building and operate a business out of what is proposed to be a 2-story structure. Lednovich said that he has received mixed reviews from the public on this concept. He said the same concerns apply to the “entertainment venue.” That will also be run by a businessman and people will need to pay to attend the events held there. “This is not going to be ‘Sounds On Centre’ or one of our local bands,” Lednovich said, “but maybe not 100 percent of the time.”
City Manager Dale Martin addressed Lednovich’s concerns. He said, “Each member of the Steering Committee [chairs of the Marina Advisory Board, Historic District Council, Parks and Recreation Committee, and Main Street] have been part of the discussion that resulted in the plan concept. It is incumbent upon them to relate to their boards exactly what you are talking about.” He cited earlier meetings with the Steering Committee and consultants during which details were laid out. “Part of [the Steering Committee’s] role is to explain all this to their boards in February,” Martin said. “If they want more background, we can provide that, but they have all been part of the discussions.”
Martin sent the following information to the Steering Committee via email on January 30:
Thank you for your efforts to date regarding the waterfront concept. For those of you unable to attend the City Commission’s annual Visioning Session yesterday, please know that the City Commission unanimously supported the same concept that you endorsed in December (Concept E).
Please present the attached presentation to your board/commission at its February meeting. I would like to learn of comments related to the following issues:
The proposed outdoor event space and accompanying performance facility.
The proposed indoor event space.
The re-orientation of Front Street parking.
The introduction of greenspace in Parking Lots A and B.
The discussion should focus on the general CONCEPTS presented, not specific DESIGN elements. Once comments on the CONCEPTS have been received from your boards/commissions, I will compile the comments to share with the City Commissioners. I expect to have a greater public forum to discuss the CONCEPTS in early March. Following the February and early March engagement efforts, the City Commission will be charged with endorsing/revising the CONCEPTS. After endorsement/revisions, City staff will initiate DESIGN and PLANNING efforts in conjunction with appropriate consultants/engineers.
Road and railroad configurations will be prepared by engineers and staff from Ayres Associates, the Florida Department of Transportation, and Genesee & Wyoming Railroad.
I will plan to attend your February meeting for the purpose of supporting the City Commission efforts.
In response to Lednovich, Martin affirmed that the board chairs will collect all the feedback from their boards and submit it to him for consolidation and transmittal to the FBCC.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger, citing rumors and concerns in the community, asked if the City had received an unsolicited offer from a private businessman with respect to the event building and performance venue. Unsolicited offers are covered by state law. He said, “I want to be careful that we are open to everybody on this. If there was a special deal, let’s bring it out in the open and be transparent.”
Commissioner Chip Ross raised issues with the marina. He provided a list of city owned property along the riverfront — uplands and submerged lands — along with their total valuation by the Property Appraiser at $5.2M. He proceeded to list the costs associated with the various portions of the marina repair and refurbishment. “If all goes well,” he said, “FEMA will reimburse the city $5.3M and $950K for the city’s costs. We are now in our third attempt to get FEMA to pay us for expenses to rebuild the southern attenuator [destroyed by Hurricane Matthew]. If we get no FEMA payment, the city is on the hook for $9.8M; with FEMA help, the city is responsible for over $4M.”
Ross continued, advising that it will cost $1.9M to repair, not extend, the northern attenuator. That includes the fuel system. If FEMA follows through on earlier commitments, the city’s portion of that will be $285K.
Ross provided the following list of projects and costs:
Replace North attenuator
Estimated cost: $850,000 [parts] + $520,000 [labor] +$100,000 [misc] =$1,470,000 Repair fuel system
Estimated cost: $ 400,000
Refurbish whalers and rods on docks 2N and 3N
Estimated cost: range of $100,000 to $300,000 Westrec has not produced estimate Refurbish pile guides on docks 2N and 3N
Estimated cost: less than $30,000 Westrec has not produced estimate
Open exiting mooring field
Estimated cost unknown – Westrec has not produced estimate
Planned Expansion of the Mooring Field
Estimated cost: unable to obtain
Bathroom building replacement
Estimated cost: unknown at this time Westrec has not produced estimate Board Walk South of Brett’s substructure repair
Estimated cost: range $50,000 to $190,000
“The total cost of the marina rebuild is $11.7M; if FEMA pays, the City is on the hook for $4.75M,” Ross said. He went on to suggest that money that the city has received a Boating Infrastructure Grant (BIGP) $1.5M that could possibly be repurposed to defray city cost. He also cited a pending Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) grant as a possible source of revenue to offset north marina costs.
Ross solicited FBCC support to ask the City Manager to see if the grant money could be repurposed.
Vice Mayor Kreger said that the City Manager had already indicated he and Grants Administrator Lorelei Jacobs were looking into the BIG-P grant repurposing, but that odds of securing approval were slim, agreeing with Ross that the City should at least try to do so.
Ross remarked, “Shortly we are going to have a fully functional marina that has cost $12M. I’d like to begin the discussion of how best to manage that asset. He identified four options:
- Employ a professional management company — Westrec or some other company.
- Lease out the operation and collect a payment.
- Sell the marina.
- Revert to City management of the property.
Ross solicited input from the FBCC on thoughts for managing the marina.
Lednovich said that the last time the FBCC discussed selling the marina, the Commission Chamber filled with “people carrying pitchforks and torches.” He rejected the viability of that option, which Ross also did not support. He said, “I’m a believer that you always entertain vendors. What happens over time is that a vendor will take you for granted. I support going out to see who else other than Westrec is interested in running the marina.”
Kreger said, “There is a fifth option: tell Westrec to make money and get out of their way. But I also believe that there are problems with their current contract—a lot of vagueness. It needs to be cleaned up.” He added that he would have no problems in going out to solicit wider interest. He asked the City Manager for input.
City Manager Dale Martin said he agreed with the options. He said that to address the concerns about selling the marina, the best way would be to solicit interest from potential buyers. If there is none, that would put that issue to rest. He suggested that the city issue a wide ranging Request for Proposal (RFP) that would allow for selling or leasing all or part of the marina and/or managing marina operations. “We need to look at what’s in the best interests of the City,” Martin said. “If someone were to offer $20M for the marina — which is not likely, let’s be clear — there’s a price for everything. Let’s be honest about that. We can go back to the Stantec Report which highlighted the need to do something about marina debt.”
Martin suggested, “I think we can do an RFP to manage, lease or buy, and depending on responses, the Westrec contract can be terminated with 45 days notice. If we don’t get responses worth considering, we can continue with the status quo. But this may also provide an opportunity for Westrec to sharpen its pencil and renegotiate or clarify their contract. If we do the RFP, we keep several options open.”
Commissioner Phil Chapman said that when he had initially broached the option of selling the marina there were people interested. But that preceded lumbering the marina with added debt to purchase the Vuturo property on Front Street. Chapman said that commissioners have been told many times that the marina cannot make money independently of uplands development, which the FBCC has reserved as park land. He said that he wasn’t sure that Westrec was doing the best job, but cautioned that without the ability to sell gas, the marina is not marketable. He supported an RFP soliciting management options, but did not feel that leasing would solve the marina’s financial problems. He also considered as obstacles the identified need to demolish the existing building containing boaters’ bathroom and laundry services as well as the boaters’ lounge.
Lednovich emphasized that he is completely opposed to selling or leasing the marina. He said that he has been told that the two profit centers for marina are boat storage and boat repair. His understanding is that the property as it exists is not large enough to accommodate those businesses. “That’s a conundrum,” he said.
With respect to current management, Lednovich said that far from expanding the mooring field to bring in more income, the current mooring field is not ready for use. The chains for the mooring balls have not been replaced for three years. He said it will cost $50K to get the existing mooring field back in shape. He recalled Commissioner Ross’ presentation at an earlier meeting citing all the maintenance that has not been done at the city marina over the past three years. “I think it’s a necessity that we get Westrec up to the plate to start managing the marina,” he said.
Ross stressed that he is adamantly opposed to selling the marina, but that because he keeps getting emails from citizens saying the marina should be sold, he would like to put the matter to bed. “That was my reason for putting it on the list — not that I thought it was a good idea,” Ross said. “If you do the economics on this, there isn’t going to be anybody wanting to buy the marina.”
Ross reminded the FBCC that the lease with Brett’s Waterway Cafe is up in 2-3 years and that since Brett has expressed interest in staying, the City can renegotiate better terms. “If they were paying what we thought they should be paying, the City would be collecting 5 percent of their revenue, or $200-300K per year. Instead they are paying $750 per month.”
Atlantic Seafood also has a lease. Ross said their current building is held up by “termites holding hands.” The building needs to be replaced in a new location not subject to stormwater problems. Current owners would enjoy right of first refusal under their existing lease, and depending on agreements, the City could see increased revenues.
Ross also cited the Vuturo property, which has rights over submerged lands. That property could also be leased. He also suggested that the City could allow contractors to come in and repair boats in the marina.
Ross believed that the City might be able to bring in $500-700K annual revenue from his four suggestions. But he acknowledged that some of those ideas might not be valid options because of prior grant agreements.
Vice Mayor Kreger said, “This whole thing started because we asked the City Manager to come up with a plan. He’s done that: to issue an RFP that includes everything.” Kreger cautioned commissioners on taking land out of what has been reserved for parkland to avoid jeopardizing the eminent domain case underway.
Mayor John Miller reminded commissioners that the City has not yet had time to assess how the realignment of docks in the marina’s south basin will lower dredging costs in future years.
City Attorney Tammi Bach said that in addition to grant restrictions, the City is also restricted by tax exempt financing associated with the debt. Bach said the issue with the mooring field had just come to her attention. “What I’d like to tell the public,” she said, “is we need to look into breach of contract. Those are strong words, but they are my words. My understanding is that we paid full fare for management [to Westrec] while the marina was closed. So what were they doing? And what does the marina’s being closed have to do with maintaining the mooring field, which is not even in the marina? You can tell me not to do so, but I think I should look into it.”
Ross said, “I can tell you that with respect to Docks 2 and 3 to the north, the rods and whalers have not been maintained for years. That’s going to cost between $100-300K to fix.”
Bach said, “We can get someone independent to tell us if those things should have been done. A natural disaster prevents you from conforming to your responsibilities under a contract, but I’d like to know why this happened. We need to look into it on behalf of the taxpayers. I intend to do that.”
City Manager Dale Martin has reported that he is working on an RFP as requested which will be on the agenda for FBCC consideration at the next meeting.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.