Miami marina owner in it for the long haul

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Don’t let the fatigue jacket with the flower imprint on it fool you.

Patricia “Trish” Hamilton is a savvy businesswoman, though she doesn’t wear a power suit to work.

Don’t let the fatigue jacket with the flower imprint on it fool you.

Patricia “Trish” Hamilton is a savvy businesswoman, though she doesn’t wear a power suit to work. She has been a businesswoman since she was 18 years old, when her dad died suddenly and Hamilton was thrust into the role of owner and manager of the family business.

Hamilton is the heart and soul of the KeystonePointMarina, a North Miami fixture since the 1940s and pioneer in dry-stack boat storage.

A brand-spanking-new college freshman, Hamilton had arrived at FloridaStateUniversity in Tallahassee just three weeks before her dad died. She was leaning toward a major in political science or oceanography but never had to decide which to pursue. She left college, came home and learned from the school of hard knocks how to run a marina.

The summer before Hamilton had worked a couple of months in the marina office while the office manager was out on maternity leave.

Hamilton enjoyed boating and water skiing, but the short stint in the office was the extent of her resume of marina employment.

“It was a shock,” she said. “I had a lot to learn.”

That was 20 years ago. She has learned her lessons well. Today Hamilton, 38, is taking the marina into the 21st century, and that has involved some growing pains. It also has forced her to confront the question that every small-marina owner faces sooner or later: Should she sell out to developers? The 5-acre marina lies on prime North Miami waterfront across the street from three condominiums.

“I think I’m like a lot of marina owners,” Hamilton says. “I’m not in the marina business just because it’s a good business. I’m in the marina business because I really like it. I really love what I do.”

She is a jack of many trades. One day she’s a general contractor. The next she is writing press releases or drawing up plans for the property. Another day she is educating a customer in environmental practices or fighting pests or hauling boats or shoring up a seawall.

Though redeveloping the property as condos isn’t unthinkable, “I haven’t done the math for condos,” she says. “I haven’t looked at other options. I’m not married. I have no kids. I’m a one-woman show here.”

She likes being a marina owner. But right now she’s not only managing the marina, she’s overseeing construction. “I don’t like being a general contractor,” she says. “I don’t like that job. I want to get back to managing a marina.”

This winter a demolition crew tore down the marina’s 37-year-old covered high-and-dry. It was one of the first in South Florida, and when those stacks went up the marina became a slice of the popular TV show “Miami Vice.” Many of its customers were owners of go-fasts under 28 feet. Today the marina serves mainly family cruisers and center console fishing boats — most of them around 25 feet, but their size is growing. Hamilton is building a new 148-slip high-and-dry for boats up to 38 feet, which should be open by the end of April. It is designed to withstand winds up to 146 mph, but it won’t be covered. Hamilton says open racks withstand hurricane winds better than the walls of a dry-stack building, and hurricanes are a fact of life now in Florida. With its wet slips, the new high-and-dry and other storage, Keystone can store over 250 boats, but it is permitted for 450, so there’s room for expansion. Hamilton has built 300 feet of new docks. Still in the future: a new seawall and underground fuel tanks.

All of this costs money — lots of money. Hamilton has had to raise slip rates 40 percent, and this has given some of her customers heartburn. “We’ve got very loyal customers,” she says. Some have been at the marina over 25 years. Its location — just off the Intracoastal Waterway and 20 minutes from Haulover Inlet — is a big draw.

But the fact is its character is changing. The cost of running the marina, upgrading it and paying taxes on the prime waterfront it sits on are rising. Keystone’s slip rates now start at $12.50 a foot per month for dry stack, $16 a foot for wet slip. Hamilton says she has lost 100 customers with the rate increases, but she expects more-affluent customers with bigger boats will replace them. As for the less-affluent customer — the owner of the smaller boat who can’t afford higher rates — their best option is to trailer their boat, she says, but that raises a public policy question: What are South Florida’s municipal governments doing to encourage boaters to keep their boats on trailers in their yard at home? Many don’t allow it, and don’t provide public storage for either trailer boats or recreational vehicles.

Larry Ficks, 58, of Miramar, owner of an 18-foot Sunbird and 27-year customer of Keystone, says he’s always liked the place. “The people are friendly,” he says, the location is convenient but the changes are troubling. He prefers covered storage, and he doesn’t like the new slip rates. “Nobody’s too thrilled with the price increases, but at other marinas the prices are even higher,” he says. “I’m at the borderline of whether I want to keep the boat or not.”

Hamilton says the decision to upgrade the marina and raise prices was a tough one, but one thing she has learned over the past 20 years is that she has to run a business like a business to stay in business.

“It’s hard to see some of them go because they’ve been here for so long,” she says. “But we’re positioned now for the long term with this [new rack storage]. This was a big step for me.”

Besides storing boats, Keystone has an independently owned general mechanics shop and specialized outboard service shop, a yacht brokerage and Travelift to haul boats for bottom painting.

Hamilton says her dad had been keeping his 50-foot Hatteras at Keystone when he decided to buy the marina in 1968 and build one of the region’s first high-and-drys there. This year Active Development Co. — technically the marina’s owner — celebrates its 50th anniversary. Active Development is the real estate investment company founded by her father, Ed, to develop nearby Sans Souci Estates.

Hamilton says she’s investing in new facilities and making changes now so the marina can operate for another 50 years.

“It’s definitely a big commitment,” she says. “I’m not leaving.”

And, no, the property is not for sale.