Port Whine

Miami-Dade County's proposal to privatize public marinas has mariners up in arms

Eric Stuart, president of the Key Biscayne Charter Boat Association, represents ten operators of fishing boats docked at Crandon. They currently pay $400 per month in rent. "We're adamantly opposed to this and we've said so to the manager's people," he says. "We're very good for tourism. We do one million dollars in business every year and we create hotel, restaurant, and tax revenue. But once a private firm comes in, you're at their mercy."

Westrec has made money in many other marinas across the country. The company has an annual revenue of about $50 million and operates about 30 marinas in eight states. It is also overseeing a $35-million-taxpayer-funded renovation of Chicago's facilities. Since late 1995 when Westrec took over, that city has seen profits from municipal marinas rise from $2.6 million to $6.6 million, according to Eleanor Lipinski, Chicago's director of lakefront services. "Our arrangement with Westrec has been one of the most successful privatization ventures the city has tried," she contends.

But the increased profits are the result of higher rates for docking, Lipinski says. She adds that, as is the case in Miami-Dade, Chicago's publicly owned marinas charged less than private ones before Westrec took over. Scott Stevenson, a Westrec vice president based in Chicago, says rates have increased between 10 percent and 36 percent since the takeover. But he insists that upgrades have helped to increase occupancy rates. "We have found that boat owners are willing to pay for the improved services," he says.

Bill Anderson, Westrec's president, says Miami-Dade will present different issues than Chicago, where almost the entire marina infrastructure needed replacing. "In a place like Miami, we might increase the attractions at a marina," he states. Among the possibilities: family centers with diversions for children, fishing tournaments, and rental of small motorboats.

Miami attorney Dan Paul, who has criticized wasteful government policies in the past, is appalled. "One of the reasons we pay taxes is to have amenities like parks and marinas and I don't think those facilities should be used as revenue producers," he says.

RFP opponents say privatization is already creeping into Miami-Dade. In December Marine Funding Group Inc., which runs the PGA Marina in Palm Beach and the Palm Beach Polo Club, assumed management of most facilities at Black Point. The previous tenant, Marine Management Inc., operated it until it declared bankruptcy in 1996.

Darlene Oliphant and other privatization opponents have raised questions about Marine Funding's relationship with Westrec. Marine Funding holds liens on Westrec properties and took over former Westrec holdings (including Tavernier Creek Marina and Faro Blanco) when debts came due. "In cases like these, people get sweetheart deals when another company can't pay its bills," says Oliphant. "You wonder if that won't happen again with Westrec."

County Commission Chairperson Gwen Margolis was also unhappy with the arrangement at Black Point. She was angered at what she considered the small amount of money that would come to the county for a ten-year lease that includes a waterside restaurant. Marina Funding won the contract with a bid of $2.25 million, or $225,000 per year.

"If people are willing to purchase that lease for two million dollars, then Dade County should see more (money)," she says. "I say send it back to the parks department so we can make a better deal."

But in the end, Commissioner Katy Sorenson, whose district includes Black Point, championed the motion. Sorenson cited the chaos caused by the bankruptcy in 1996. After Margolis was assured the deal would come up for review next year, she dropped her opposition and it passed.

Pelican Harbor is the next marina ripe for privatization. It lost $90,000 in 1997. Only about twenty percent of its slips were used during that year. The marina shares the grounds with a Florida Marine Patrol station and the Pelican Harbor Sea Bird Station, which nurses injured birds back to health. Recuperating pelicans sit on pylons and share the docks, apparently amicably, with stray cats.

On a recent day inside the marina office, dockmaster Mike Brescher is busy trying to reverse the facility's fortunes. Brescher is a veteran marina manager and has participated on county committees to design new marinas.

His two-way radio crackles with an inquiry from a sailboat owner asking where the marina is located and if there is space for another boat. "Oh, we always have room," Brescher answers. The caller says she found the marina on the Internet. Brescher gives her directions and hangs up.

Brescher credits a new parks department Website, which went up this year, for augmenting the number of year-round tenants. He may also be getting boats from Crandon, where some slips have been closed for repairs. "We got only one new boat all last year [1997] and now we've gotten twelve in just the past three months," he asserts. "We'll be $20,000 to $50,000 in the black by the end of this year."

Brescher, like the other dockmasters, won't speak on the record about privatization. A gag order went out because the parks department will submit a proposal. But many of Brescher's colleagues privately express opposition to the RFP, despite a parks department guarantee they will be given other jobs in case of privatization.

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