Homes sink boatyard's future

Boaters sadly watch as the appetite for waterfront land gobbles up the Bahia Beach boatyard.

Published June 4, 2005

RUSKIN - The boatyard at Bahia Beach Marina is dusty and hot, filled with the buzz of hand sanders. It's the sound of boaters scrambling to complete their repairs. They have a deadline.

The boatyard - for 50 years one of the largest and most famed do-it-yourself boatyards on the eastern Tampa Bay coast - will close in a matter of months to make way for more than 400 homes.

Most boaters say they're not sure where they will go. As land becomes more valuable, more and more boatyards are giving way to condos and houses.

This is the end of an era, boaters say.

"What's happening here is what's happening everywhere," said marina manager George Kupelian.

John Wick, who works at the boatyard, didn't mince words:

"Boating, as we know it around here, is gone."

In its heyday, in the 1980s and early '90s, the Bahia Beach boatyard held more than 150 vessels. Its reputation spread by word of mouth among "cruisers," boaters who spend years at sea.

They came from all over the Caribbean and Bahamas to ride out the stormy season and scrape their boats clean.

Skip Klamp, 59, of Apollo Beach was one of them. His 32-foot sloop, Starwatch, once carried him and his wife around the globe. When they came home to Florida, they always hauled it out at Bahia Beach for maintenance.

In the evenings, he said, boaters would get together on one of the boats, or by the pool of the adjacent hotel. Someone would take out a guitar.

"Everyone knew everyone," he said. "It was a place for sailors to gather and tell sea stories."

Earthmark Inc., a development company in Fort Myers, bought the marina from the Dickman family in April. Richard McGinniss, Earthmark's general manager of development, said the Dickmans, a tomato-farming clan that started the marina in the 1950s, originally planned to turn the boatyard into homes as early as the 1980s. But the plan was put into motion only after Earthmark bought the marina.

The land, McGinniss said, is simply worth more as homes. "There isn't room for both uses," he said.

The marina includes 200 slips and a "high and dry" storage facility that can house 200 small boats. The slips and high-and-dry building will stay open to the public. But McGinniss says that eventually the 400-plus homeowners will be given "preferred treatment" when it comes to renting or buying the boat slips and storage berths.

Ron Jago, 52, of Palmetto runs Unlimited Yacht Services, a boat-maintenance company that works the Bahia Beach yard. He says he'll be able to find work elsewhere - at least for a while. When one door closes, he said, another opens somewhere.

Still, he said, losing the boatyard is "a tragedy."

"We're losing the character, the ambience of living in Florida," Jago said. "It's going away. Deep down inside I tell myself, if that other door doesn't open, I'm not sure I'll want to live here in 10 years."