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Boaters fear rent increase

A higher fee at the city marina and a decline in tourism could force some boaters out of business.

By MIKE DONILA, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2007

Richard Nicajevsky washes his fishing charter boat Above Average in the his rented slip at the Clearwater Marina.
[Joseph Garnett, Jr. | Times]

CLEARWATER - City Hall has a five-year plan to raise rental fees at its marina on Clearwater Beach, but many owners of commercial boats there say that would further hurt their already struggling businesses.

"The (city) staff is proposing drastically, outrageous rent increases," said Eric Spaulding, 36, who owns Queen Fleet Deep Sea Fishing. "Now is not the right time to raise anyone's rent."

But city leaders say the 209-slip marina will lose $175,000 this year because of rising costs and as much as $450,000 by 2012 if nothing is done.

"We have to find a balance so that (the marina) at least breaks even and at the same time keep the commercial businesses successful because they are an important element of the tourist industry," Mayor Frank Hibbard said.

According to a five-year plan put together by city management:

-Rental rates for commercial vessels would go up 15 percent in the 2008 fiscal year, 25 percent in 2009 and 2010, then 10 percent in 2011 and 2012.

-The city will charge more for the commercial slips along Coronado Drive that get the most foot traffic.

-The city will amend dock permits so that a slip's ownership would revert to the city - not the new business owner - when a vessel is sold.

Many of the 50 or so commercial operators say they've been taking a beating the past couple of years because tourism is down. They blame the slowdown on extensive construction work on new condominiums and the BeachWalk promenade that has at times shut down the south beach's two main thoroughfares.

With business down already, an increase in rental rates could force some to shut down, they say.

Commercial tenants pay fees based on the number of passengers their boats can carry.

Under the proposed plan rates, rent for his 150-passenger boat would be $970 a month in 2008 and rise to $2,100 a month in 2012.

Vessel owners also say the city's plan would make it difficult to sell their businesses. The owners currently pay a transfer fee equivalent to three years' rent if the business is sold to a nonfamily member. But the slip is transferred along with the business. That would change under the new plan.

Spaulding, president of the nonprofit Clearwater Marine Association, said if businesses were forced to vacate their slips once they sold their boats, then "no one would want to invest in their operation."

The City Council began talking publicly about the plan on Oct. 17 and heard from commercial operators then. At the end of the meeting they asked Clearwater management to see if they can tweak the plan so that the increases won't be as painful for the businesses.

The staff is now considering reversing the proposed time line for the increases so that next year the monthly rates for commercial rentals would increase 15 percent rather than 25 percent, said Bev Buysse, assistant director of the marine and aviation department.

Rates would continue to increase 10 percent in 2009 and 2010 and 25 percent in 2011 and 2012.

Troy Manthey, president and CEO of the dining cruise yacht Starship, said he understands the need for higher rent, but said smaller increases would help the businesses "ride out the transition" as new hotels come online and tourism picks up again.

"We've been greatly impacted" by the loss of the hotel rooms and are "currently surviving on local residents," said Manthey, whose Tampa-based operation recently expanded to Clearwater.

Buysse said the city is also looking into addressing another complaint. Right now the commercial vessels have 30-day dock permits instead of lease agreements. Some owners complained that it's tough to get financing because banks consider the short-term agreements too risky. The owners want longer term agreements and Buysse said the city is looking into it.

If the increases are approved, the commercial slips alone could bring in around an additional $254,000 by 2012, according to the five-year plan. Coupled with proposed increases to private slips, the marina could see more than $900,000 in revenues by 2012.

[Last modified October 27, 2007, 21:02:01]

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