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From boater to marina owner

What’s a man to do if he’s newly married, selling his business, looking for a career change and, oh yes, loves the water? David Papallo found the perfect answer for him: Buy a marina. In his case, Andrews Marina in Haddam, Conn.

Growing up in Meriden, Conn., Papallo says he’s not really sure how it started, but, “I’ve loved boating since I was a kid.”

In 1985, while still a college student, Papallo bought his first boat, a 21-foot Galaxy cuddy cabin. “Other kids were buying motorcycles; I wanted a boat,” he says. Fortunately for him, that boat came with a slip at a little marina right next to the Haddam swing bridge on the Connecticut River — Andrews Marina.

“I lucked out,” he says, not only with the location, but also with the affable and friendly marina owner, Jim Andrews.

Thirteen years — and several boats — later, Papallo ran a successful modeling and talent agency. Indeed, he was lucky enough to be able to spend a fair amount of time at the marina working from his boat, now a 34-foot Silverton. But he needed a change.

“I was having a really bad day,” he remembers, “and I was watching Jim mowing the lawn, making his way around the docks, and I was thinking how much I envied his lifestyle. Jim saw me, and we started talking. I told him if he was ever interested in selling the marina, to please let me know.”

Soup to nuts

A year later, in 1999, he got that phone call.

Andrews, who had owned the marina since 1981, told him he was thinking it was time to move on.

“That’s when we got the ball rolling,” Papallo says. “We threw some figures around,” he remembers. They talked some more. Papallo researched and secured financing. By July of 2000, Andrews Marina was owned by Dave Papallo. A critical element to the deal, as far as Papallo was concerned, was that Andrews would be around for the first year to help out.

“I knew boats and how to run a business, but I didn’t know how to run a marina,” Papallo says. “Jim taught me everything, from soup to nuts. … There’s quite a bit to it.”

Andrews Marina is on the west bank of the Connecticut River, about 14 miles from Long Island Sound. Set on 2.5 acres of land, it includes 76 slips, 10 moorings, a gas dock and pump-out station, the owner’s house, a rental house, and a building with marina bathrooms and a rental apartment.

Papallo and his (then pregnant) wife, Jen, moved into the owner’s house, and summer was pretty much what he expected. Then came fall — they like to have all boats out of the water by Oct. 31. Andrews and Papallo brought the docks in, which takes about three weeks. “Done,” the new marina owner said when the job was finished.

Not quite, said the veteran marina owner to his protégé. Next came a multitude of tasks, the most important of which was installing the bubbling system around the pilings to help minimize freezing and ice damage.

No time for boating

These days Papallo has the routine down, starting in mid-March with building new docks, making repairs, hoping the spring “melt down” and flooding isn’t too bad, transferring the winter bubbling system back to the summer water system, moving the docks back to their summer spots, making repairs and re-configuring the electric back to its in-season mode.

Usually around May 1 the boats begin to arrive, and it’s grounds maintenance, dock maintenance, gas pumping, housekeeping, and helping boat owners get their boats in and out of the water if they need it. Living on the premises means less privacy at times, but it also helps with security. “I walk the docks regularly to make sure everything is safe,” says Papallo, adding that he also has an elaborate security system.

Boating season is over come the end of October, and winterizing the marina takes until about Dec. 1. Winter passes, with slip payments due in February (there’s always a waiting list) and, before he knows it, it’s time to start the whole process again.

Life has changed for Papallo since he first considered buying the marina. For one thing, he doesn’t have much time for boating. Papallo sold his Silverton in 2000 and, although he still has a 17-foot Checkmate, it spends most of its time on a trailer at the back of his property. “I don’t want to take a slip I could be renting,” he says with a chuckle.

One-man show

Vacations have also changed. Now he and his family take a break in the winter, since they can no longer get away in the summer, traveling to warm spots like Florida or Hawaii. “I still totally love and enjoy boating,” Papallo says, “but it’s different when you own your own marina.”

During boating season it’s a seven-day-a-week job, “And I’m a one-man show,” he says, though he does hire out for some services. Jen Papallo, who has a full-time nursing job, helps out, too. She tends to the flowerbeds and landscaping, more often than not with their daughter, Makena, in tow.

Papallo also owns and manages a number of rental properties in Meriden.

The income generated from those investments means he doesn’t have to offer marina services such as winter boat storage and in-house mechanical maintenance and repair. While profitable services, Papallo says he would rather forego them in favor of making other property improvements. Unlike other marinas along the river, Andrews Marina does not include a restaurant, either.

Plenty of help

Papallo says he was encouraged to take on this venture, in part, because he already kept his boat there, “and some of the people were my best friends.”

Papallo’s boater friends are still there if he has a problem or a project. “If I say I need a hand, I can guarantee 25 or 30 boat owners will give it,” Papallo says. “People have been outstanding, which means more to me than I could ever say.”

Papallo also enjoys the collegial relationship he has with other marina owners along the Connecticut River, calling it friendly and pretty non-competitive.

Like all marina owners, Papallo must contend with the inevitable and routine need for dredging. Most recently was a $50,000 dredging project, completed in November 2003. Papallo says this is necessary about every seven years due to the silt and debris constantly carried in and out of the river by the Long Island Sound tides. Calling it his biggest expenditure so far, Papallo says it’s not just getting the 6,000 cubic yards (this time) of material removed from the bottom of the marina. It’s also getting it tested, de-watered, spread and seeded across the marina property.

Other major expenses include electric bills during boating season — running about $2,000 a month in 2004 — property taxes and insurance.

But he says he wouldn’t trade it in for his old career.“I’m living my dream,” says Papallo, with no hesitation. “It’s a great lifestyle.”