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Short on slips

Tampa's painful lack of marina space is finally being addressed, but the need will be far from completely satisfied.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
A sailboat departs the Davis Island Yacht Club, which has about 75 people on the waiting list for boat slips.
DAVIS ISLANDS -- Bill Edgar moved to Tampa more than two years ago for the sun, the water and the sailing.

A Wisconsin native, he figured the shorelined city would be an ideal place to live and own a boat. He never imagined he would have to wait years for a place to dock it.

"I was thoroughly disappointed by the lack of slips," said Edgar, who's on a waiting list to dock a boat at the Davis Island Yacht Club. "Why in the world isn't Tampa satisfying the boating community like it should?"

It's a question a lot of boaters ask.

Hillsborough County ranks third in the state in number of registered boats, but lags far behind places such as St. Petersburg and Fort Lauderdale that have big, full-service public marinas. Although many waterfront homeowners have docks, other boat owners scrounge for limited space.

In the end, many take their vessels elsewhere.

"Tampa is just backwards. It's not a boating community," said Skip North, who sells yachts in St. Petersburg and grew up in South Tampa. "Almost all of the people who have bigger boats keep them in St. Pete."

Avid boaters say Tampa's forefathers never gave enough thought to building marine facilities. Houses and office towers gobbled up most waterfront land. And the marinas that were built were not maintained.

The two city-run marinas -- Marjorie Park Yacht Basin and Bayshore Marina -- have not been renovated or expanded in decades, despite a surge in population and boat ownership. The county had 44,263 registered boats in 2000, according to the state. In 1990, it had 37,688.

Both marinas are in high demand and have more people on waiting lists than they have boats in slips. Marjorie Park, with its 79 slips, has 172 boaters in line. Bayshore, with its 37 slips, has 94. Several people put their names on both.

Getting a spot takes years. Marjorie Park's list dates back more than a decade. Bayshore's goes back four years.

"I think it's a long time to wait, but I'm not surprised," said James Mallory, No. 2 in line for a space at Marjorie Park. He signed up in 1994.

Private clubs feel the same crunch. Davis Island has about 75 people on the waiting list. The Tampa Yacht and Country Club has 50.

"If I had 200 slips, I could fill 'em," said Herman Bips, dockmaster at Davis Island. Instead, he has 110.

While many people wait, several projects are in the works to make Tampa a little more boater-friendly. They range from renovating the city marinas to adding short-term boat slips near the Convention Center.

"We didn't reinvest money in our marinas when we should have," said Jack Morriss, Tampa's public works director. "They have been neglected for a long time."

Top on the list is expanding Marjorie Park on Davis Islands. Despite opposition from some residents, the City Council decided last year to overhaul the 1920s marina and expand it to 123 slips. The $5.5-million project adds a store, restrooms and fueling station.

The city is in the process of getting the necessary permits and hopes to advertise for construction bids by the end of this month, Morriss said. Work would start by early fall and last several months.

Nearby, along the Hillsborough Bay, Tampa also plans to refurbish the Bayshore Marina. The work, which has not been funded, involves dredging the shallow areas and replacing the wooden docks, gates and utilities. It would not increase the number of slips.

The design and permitting could start this summer, Morriss said. Construction could begin within the next year and last four to six months. In all, the city estimates the cost at $800,000.

To help tourism, the Convention Center and the Marriott Waterside Hotel want to add short-term docking spaces for boaters who venture downtown. They could moor their boats, then hop on the trolley to Channelside, the Florida Aquarium or Ybor City.

"We want to encourage people to come by boat," said John Moors, administrator of convention facilities. "We've got this wonderful asset . . . that we haven't used that much."

The $500,000 project is in the permitting process and construction could start by the end of the year. It's unclear at this early stage what fees boaters will pay. Plans call for about 30 slips.

Next door, the Marriott wants to add 32 similar slips along the water for people who want to visit the hotel.

"The channel is nice now . . . but there's no place to pull up and have a drink or have dinner," said resident manager Nabil Salloum. "I think it will be good for the hotel and good for the area."

If all goes as planned, he hopes to have the slips in by next year's Gasparilla Pirate Fest.

Improvements may also include permanent anchors at the Davis Islands Seaplane Basin. The city threatened to remove vessels staying for free in the small bay, but backed off when boat owners objected. Now, the city wants to install moorings and charge a monthly fee.

Boaters met with city officials last month to go over the project and ask questions. Although no money has been set aside, Ron Rotella, a consultant to Mayor Dick Greco, said funding could be found. Eventually, the moorings could pay for themselves.

It will take six to nine months to determine whether the project is viable from an environmental and logistical standpoint. The basin is littered with old cars and machinery used to hold down vessels. It also has several feet of accumulated mud and silt.

Boating fans say the improvements will help, but not solve, Tampa's dearth of marine facilities. As the area continues to grow, waiting lists will likely get longer, not shorter.

"I don't think the city has really looked at it as a revenue source," said Tom Johnston, No. 44 in line for a spot at Marjorie Park and No. 1 for one at Bayshore. "With the amount of water that Tampa has, it's a shame we can't offer more marinas."

Others say the city missed opportunities.

Developer Lee Scarfone proposed transforming Bayshore Marina into a full-scale marina for wealthy business people and their yachts, but the city turned him down.

"They said thank you very much . . . but we've decided to do it ourselves," he said. "I really hope they do it, but I don't see it happening."

Scarfone said his project would have improved Tampa's image among the tight-knit boating crowd. Entrepreneurs would have had a place to strike deals and Tampa would have gotten a fancy marina with restaurants and parking. He said even Donald Trump told him he would take a slip.

"There would be a lot of business going on. There wouldn't be fishing," he said. "It's strictly about trade and commerce. We wanted big boats."

Even private marine operators can't understand why Tampa doesn't do more to cultivate the big-spender boating community. They look at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina across the bay, which has 610 slips.

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
The 1920s Marjorie Park Yacht Basin on Davis Islands will be overhauled and expanded to 123 slips. The $5.5-million project adds a store, restrooms and fueling station.

"Manatees have more rights than boaters," said Vinny Lehron, dockmaster at the Tampa Yacht & Country Club.

Virginia Kaul, whose late husband, Ralph, built and owned the Georgetown Apartments near Gandy Boulevard, said the office routinely gets calls from people wanting one of their 75 slips. They give their tenants priority but allow outsiders if space is available.

Usually, it isn't. The complex has had a waiting list since the slips went in 15 years ago. Eventually, they just stopped keeping one.

"Most people hear about it by word of mouth," she said. "We don't advertise it and we really don't want to.

"Most people have learned to be discouraged."

That's does little to deter boaters like Edgar, who considers boating Tampa's main draw.

Instead, he has learned to be patient.

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or

Top 5 boating counties in Florida

County - Registered boats

1. Miami-Dade - 55,871

2. Pinellas - 52,376

3. Hillsborough - 44,263

4. Broward - 41,900

5. Lee - 40,725

-- Source: Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Bureau of Vessel Titles and Registrations.

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