Members of the Fernandina Beach Marina Advisory Board expressed concern about variable rates for slips at the marina, which were made possible by recent action of the City Commission, and about plans for a waterfront park that encompasses the uplands east of the marina.
The City Commission recently approved a rate schedule for the use of various city facilities, such as renting recreational spaces. When the rate schedule was approved, City Commissioner Chip Ross said that since the city-owned Fernandina Beach Golf Club and Fernandina Harbor Marina are operated by management companies, those companies should be given leeway to adjust rates, such as slip rentals, based on market demands. The other commissioners agreed and empowered the management companies for the golf club and marina to adjust those rates.
At the Marina Advisory Board’s meeting this past Monday, member Scott Stewart told City Manager Dale Martin he has concerns about that situation. Oasis Marinas was recently chosen to replace Westrec Marinas to manage Fernandina Harbor Marina, and Oasis’ proposal includes a 1.5% cut of all dockage fees paid by boaters to tie up at the marina. Stewart said, given the freedom to change rates, Oasis could “write its own paycheck.”
“I understand variable rates for transient (boaters),” Stewart said. “But if they want to, all the sudden, kick out all the permanents so they can get additional income from dock fees by bringing in transients that’s rates are raised, what stops them from being able to do that? What keeps them in check? If they have the ability to raise dock fees anytime they want, that gives them pretty much an open checkbook, unless there’s some restrictions on that, and I don’t know if that’s put into the contract or not, how much they can raise rates.”
Martin said, “I don’t necessarily see that as part of their business model.”
The marina’s finances are managed as an enterprise fund that’s supposed to be self-sufficient, but the marina has been operating at a loss and is currently millions of dollars in debt to other city funds, among other funding sources.
“This is an enterprise fund that is supposed to make money. Sometimes we lose sight of that, that it is supposed to return on the investment,” Martin said. He told Stewart that negotiations are currently underway between the city and Oasis and that Stewart’s concerns regarding the setting of fees will be addressed as part of those negotiations. Martin also said the final agreement between the city and Oasis will be reviewed by the MAB before going to the City Commission for approval. However, the MAB is an advisory board so the City Commission is not required to obtain the board’s approval before it makes decisions regarding the marina.
MAB member Coleman Langshaw, like many of the members of that board, operates a business out of the marina and said those business owners need to make the community, and the city, aware of how important those marina-based businesses are.
“We need to start focusing on trying to reacquaint the community to the value of the marina to merchants, not just downtown, but throughout the island,” Langshaw said. “We’ve got to find ways to enhance what the local boating community does in addition to what the transients bring to our community. All of us who keep boats at the marina … we’ve got to make them feel like the permanent boats, economically, to the budget, to the plan, what they bring back to the city, is viable enough for them to want to not raise rates.”
Stewart also asked Martin about the city’s plans for a waterfront park. A set of plans are currently being considered by the public and by the city for the $25 million project, which includes a waterfront resiliency component. Stewart asked if the city has hired someone to manage the project.
Martin said there will be a project manager. That person, he later told the News-Leader, will be recently hired City Engineer Charles George, who is set to begin Oct. 26. Martin said that George’s background lends itself to the waterfront project, such as extensive coastal management experience, including beach renourishment on Tybee Island, and extensive marina, port, dredging, and seawall experience. George also has project management experience that includes cost and schedule variance analysis, and used to work primarily in the Savannah, Ga. area handling their port, marina and waterfront operations.
MAB member Joe Blanchard began a discussion of how the plans for a waterfront park will affect the marina and the community. He expressed concerns about the character of Fernandina Beach, comparing it to other communities in the region.
“We are basically Key West north,” Blanchard said. “This is a comfortable place to be in. Everybody gets along together. I am worried that, because of things like this park, we are going to change the makeup of this island. We are not the Landing in Jacksonville. This is not St. Marys park. Everybody says we need a park like St. Marys. We have a working marina. Every bit of the plans I’ve seen make having a working marina very difficult. I think the people of the community need to pay attention to the shrimping, the history, the way this island has always been and not try to make it into something that, in some cases where somebody came from they want to make it into something new, and the reason they came here will be lost.”
Some MAB members said they like the plans for the park, with “some tweaking” to provide parking and space for boat trailers and to include the history of Fernandina Beach in park plans. Member Paul Lore said the key is to look at the big picture of how the park will look as part of the city.
“Are we going to see a waterfront nature park with docks in the background, or the centerpiece as a waterfront?” Lore asked. “Right now, when you go down there … it’s that old Fernandina-style looking marina, that piece of why we all came here or why people were born and raised and chose to stay here. I think it’s key to figure out what it’s going to look like.”