With millions of dollars at stake, two private marina operators are duking it out to win a Miami-Dade County contract to build and manage a dry dock boat storage facility at Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables.

Earlier this year, an evaluation committee of Miami-Dade County employees selected Aventura-based Aqua Marine Partners, which offered to build a concrete building that can hold up to 360 boats.The company is promising the county $6.2 million over 30 years, plus $17.6 million in improvements to Matheson Hammock.

Aqua Marine beat out Gables Harbour Marina LLC, a company that placed second in the competition and that is now trying to derail its Aventura rival's win. Gables Harbour offered the county $2 million less than Aqua Marine.

A Miami-Dade Marina Deal Gets Nasty

This past March 20, Gables Harbour Marina lawyer Santiago Echemendia

wrote to County Manager George Burgess demanding he disqualify Aqua


While most of Echemendia's points appear irrelevant and typical of how lawyers and lobbyists for losing firms will try anything to undercut the winning bidder, the downtown Miami attorney brought up litigation against a defunct company with ties to Aqua Marine owner Andrew Sturner that raises doubts about his firm's capability to deliver at Matheson Hammock.

Last year, Passport Marine, a boat dealership that listed the same address as Aqua Marine on state incorporation records, was forced to close amid a weak economy. According to the state documents, Sturner served on Passport Marine's board of directors and he was the company's registered agent. Aqua Marine was also a Passport Marine minority shareholder.

In a lawsuit filed against Passport Marine in Miami-Dade County civil court, Ohio-based KeyBank claims the boat dealer defaulted on a line of credit and owes $18 million. The case is still pending. In addition to a bad economy, Passport Marine also suffered from shoddy inventory.

In 2007 the company settled with Oleg Lusher and Paul Rodriguez, two indivdiuals who purchased vessels from Passport Marine on seperate occassions. In their lawsuits, both men lodged similar complaints that Passport Marine failed to repair numerous problems with their boats shortly after purchasing their water rides.

Echemendia's letter prompted a response from Aqua Marine's legal eagle Jerry Proctor. He wrote Burgess this past April 2, insisting that the KeyBank lawsuit and other complaints are "in no way relevant...nor could it affect Aqua Marine Partners' performance" to deliver the dry dock building. Proctor added that his client has the "financial capacity to fully fund this project."

For now, the county manager is sticking by his staff's recommendation. Ultimately, the County Commission will decide which marina maker gets to make a buck off a public asset.

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