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Marina the linchpin to port town revival

The old mill town of Port St. Joe was dying, and many now are pinning their hopes for the town’s resuscitation on its new marina.

The old mill town of Port St. Joe was dying, and many now are pinning their hopes for the town’s resuscitation on its new marina.

The $3.2 million marina was built with the expectation that it would become a gateway to pristine St. Joseph Bay and draw boaters, anglers and beachgoers. Once the center of a thriving north Florida lumber industry, Port St. Joe aspires to become a tourist destination.

“I believe this is the beginning— I honestly do — of great things coming to Port St. Joe and Gulf County,” says Frank Pate, a retired service station owner and longtime mayor of Port St. Joe.

The 210-slip city-owned marina is the linchpin of a plan to revive the old mill town, starting with its waterfront and city center. Located on the Florida panhandle’s St. Joseph Bay, Port St. Joe is far from the madding crowd and a contender to become a tourist getaway and aboating center for high-end residential projects planned nearby.

If that happens, many will credit the marina — and the Port St. Joe Company, a big regional landowner and developer — as catalysts for Port St. Joe’s economic transformation.

The only marina along a scenic 90-mile stretch between Panama City and Apalachicola, the Port St. Joe Marina is a case study of a private-public partnership. In a state where marinas and boatyards are losing out to condominium, dockominium and other more profitable development, a movement is gathering steam to press for more private-public partnerships to build marinas and preserve the boating public’s access to the water.

Government partnering with business to build marinas may be the only way to assure public access to the water in Florida in the decades ahead, says Ken Stead, executive director of the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association. “The burden is going to fall on governmental entities to provide public access to the water no differently than they provide parks,” he says. In Florida, where 10 percent of residents own boats, setting aside waterfront for marinas and boat ramps so boaters can get on the water is as much a public concern as setting aside land for parks, he says. He wants local governments to plan for slips, ramps and ramp parking the same way they plan for parks — on the basis of projectedpopulationgrowth.

At a fall 2003 conference on public access to the water, Stead’s association scoped out the problem. He says unless government acts, loss of water access eventually will force a cap on boating in Florida. He says conferees identified several major causes for concern:

• Public marinas are being privatized, as their uplands are converted to condominiums and slips are reserved for condo residents only.

• Public marinas are being converted to dockominiums, where instead of renting slips, marinas sell slips — for $2,500 to $3,500 a foot.

• Municipalities are redeveloping waterfront and “gentrifying” it with a mix of commercial, retail and residentialdevelopment that excludes boatyards because they don’t fit in with this “upscale” environment.

• Permitting agencies are issuing very few permits for new marina construction in manatee habitats to comply with court settlements on behalf of the manatee, an endangered Florida species.

• Local governments are finding it difficult to justify devoting more precious waterfront at boat ramps to parking for trailers, although more than 80 percent of Florida boaters own trailerable boats and parking at many boat ramps is woefully inadequate on weekends.

Stead sees some progress in government acknowledging that diminishing access to the water is a problem. Florida’s Office of Boating and Waterways plans to commission a statewide study of boaters’ access to the water. The Senate Community Affairs Committee, responding to a staff study that confirms a perilous loss of working waterfront, introduced a bill in January that would:

• Require strategies for preserving recreational boating and commercial fishing waterfront in county comprehensive plans;

• Require trustees who oversee state submerged lands to encourage use of those lands for water-dependent purposes and public access;

• Provide communities technical assistance in preserving and upgrading their waterfront through creation of a Waterfronts Florida Program in the Department of Community Affairs;

• Direct the Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate current use of state parks for recreational boating and identify locations for the future expansion of public boating access;

• Increase boat registration fees 25 percent to raise $4.5 million more for local grants to build public boat ramps and docks, and fund other waterways improvements (owners of boats under 26 feet would pay less than $5 more annually under the proposed fee structure);

• Create a property tax deferral program for recreational and commercial working waterfront. This would keep a lid on taxes as waterfront escalates in value and encourage boatyard, marina and commercial fishdock owners not to convert their operations to higher-yielding uses. Waterfront owners (or new owners) would have to pay those deferred taxes as soon as they convert the land to other uses.

But how involved is government willing to get in preserving public access to the water, especially for the small-boat owner? “The burden of access is going to have to be shifted to the public sector for middle-income guys like you and me,” says David Roach, executive director of the Florida Inland Navigation District, which oversees navigable waterways on Florida’s east coast. He foresees more municipally owned rack storage providing affordable public slips for trailerable-size boats. “We aren’t there yet,” he says. “There are a few boat barns owned by public entities, but not many.” Bruce Blomgren, president of Brandy Marine, a marina design, management andconstruction firm in Sarasota, Fla., says the soaring price of waterfront is driving the loss of public marinas and boatyards.

He says marinas that rent out wet slips for $9 to $10 a foot often would have to charge $17 to $20 a foot to deliver the same return on investment as a condominiumbuilt on the same property. Either the property is converted to the more profitable use, or the marina doubles its rates. He says both are happening. “We’re going to see rates soar because there’s no place to put a boat,” he says.

Sarasota suffers from slip shortages, as do Jacksonville, Naples, Fort Lauderdale, the Palm Beaches, Bradenton and Daytona, he says.

Blomgren says private-public partnerships can take different forms.

The town of Port St. Joe owned the Port St. Joe Marina property, formerly an oil tank farm. The town built the marina, securing permits and grant and bond money for construction. The St. Joe Company, owner of more than 1 million acres in northwest Florida, leases the marina. Blomgren’s Brandy Marine used to manage it for St. Joe (International Marinas of Fort Lauderdale now manages the marina). Once a big lumber and paper milling company, St. Joe Company has gotten out of that business to become a giant real estate developer through Arvida, its community development arm. It is selling off vast tracts in northwest Florida while keeping the best — many on the Gulf coast — to develop resort, retirement and residential communities.

Blomgren says the private sector usually is better equipped than government to operate a marina because it has a more entrepreneurial spirit. Government may — or may not — supply construction funding through grants and low-interest public or private bond issues. It can issue government-guaranteed private low-interest bonds to finance construction, and the marina operator can pay off the bonds without taxpayer involvement, he says. Government often provides the site for the marina — maybe part of a waterfront park — because public land is the only undeveloped land on the waterfront. Government also secures permits, which it can do more easily than a developer because its involvement suggests a strong public interest in the project.

“It takes enlightened public officials to recognize that there is a need [for providing public access to the water] and that there are different ways to meet that need,” Blomgren says.

Private-public partnerships are one way to do it.

“[Government] builds stadiums, airports, golf courses and parks,” Blomgren says. “Why not marinas?” he asks.