By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Contributing Editor
Just over 20 years ago, the City of Isle of Palms asked its citizens if it should purchase the Wild Dunes Yacht Harbor Marina to “ensure public access to the water.” The 5-acre site was slated to be developed into a 21 home, private marina. The answer was a resounding yes. This November, the city will again present a referendum to voters, this time asking whether it should borrow $5.5 million to fund a revitalization project of the city-owned marina.
“The city and all its activities should be trying to improve whatever services we can provide to folks on the island,” Mayor Dick Cronin told Island Eye News. “The marina has received very little attention since we purchased it. So, using community input and consultants, we’ve garnered input as to what will be the best use of the facility for the future.”
The marina cost the city $4.25 million to purchase. It has used revenues generated by the marina, existing city revenues and accommodations tax revenues to pay off that debt, and there was no property tax increase needed to service the 20-year bond. The city plans to use the same revenue model to finance improvements to the now aging marina and increase the services it offers to residents.
“I realize some people never want to spend money, don’t look to the future and just like to hunker down,” Cronin said. “But this is something that can well-serve future generations on the island and not be a financial burden on the residents.”
- Marina Revitalization Plan Highlights
Replaces existing docks, many of which are pre-Hugo, and over 30 years old
Adds sidewalks, a bicycle path and a boardwalk to provide a complete perimeter path around the property
Adds pedestrian path throughout the marina
Improves traffic flow and parking, including separating boat trailer traffic from regular car traffic, making room for 150 car parking spaces, 57 truck/trailer boat ramp parking spaces, 11 more dedicated boat/trailer storage spaces and 9 flexible spaces
Creates a dedicated community dock with ADA-accessible kayak launching facilities with vehicular loading/unloading area
Builds a resident kayak/SUP storage shed
Repositions and improves staging docks at the boat ramp to allow for better traffic flow and a 3-lane boat ramp
Segregates commercial and recreational dockage, adds more recreational dockage for IOP resident and transient boats
Incorporates 34 new golf cart parking spaces (total of 44) and bicycle racks
“The previous bond will be paid off in February 2019,” Linda Lovvorn Tucker, IOP City Administrator, told Island Eye News. “The city will service the new debt the same way, out of tourism dollars and marina income. No General Fund money [funded in part by property taxes] is expected to go to service the debt.”
Final design and permitting of the revitalization project could take at least two years, Tucker said, so the city will structure its repayments to not have two bond payments in the same year. If this referendum passes a completed, revitalized marina could be in place by 2020.
Since being purchased from the Finch family in 1999, The Isle of Palms Marina has continued to operate largely as it always has – under contract with a private entity with the city as the landlord, and with some concessions to residents (such as lower boat launch fees). It is a bustling location and on any given day in the summer you will see both residents and tourists launching watercraft, picnicking on the deck of the market or enjoying dinner and music at the restaurant. In the fall and winter it’s much quieter, but still you’ll find local school children on their way to explore the barrier islands and transient boaters making their home on the docks for a night or two before heading further south for the winter.
There are currently four tenants on the 5-acre site; Tidalwave Watersports (a tenant since 1992, now under different ownership), Barrier Isles LLC (Morgan Creek Grill, a restaurant and bar), The Marina Market and Marina Joint Ventures. The last two are both owned and operated by Brian Berrigan, who subleases portions of his docks to small commercial entities, including Osprey Boat Charters, Barrier Island Eco Tours, Ocean Fitness and Coastal Expeditions. The remaining dock space is used for recreational and transient boaters.
Over the years there have been many discussions by council on how to improve the marina, as was promised in 1998 in the original proposal to purchase the property. A new intra-coastal waterway dock was installed in 2004, minor renovations to buildings have occurred, the waterway has been dredged and the bulkhead replaced. But these have all been largely maintenance focused.
In the last few years, as it became apparent that the docks needed to be replaced and the parking lots needed to be improved, the need for a master plan for the marina became more urgent. The current draft plan (pictured) will go to city council for approval, and should the referendum pass on Nov. 7, it will move to final design and permitting phase.
“This [plan] represents many years of input and compromise for the best improved residential use, but also remaining mindful of commercial and transient uses, which are important to the existing revenues that will go toward paying off the bond,” Tucker said.
Since the proposal for revitalization first got a price tag, rumors have swirled across the island, fueled in part by social media, about how the city does and will fund the marina.
The accompanying graph, supplied by the city, illustrates the source of the monies the marina has used since the city purchased it, and what those monies have been spent on over the last 18 years.
In the last 10 years, the only General Fund money to have gone toward the marina is approximately $54,000 for debt service on the currently satisfied bulkhead replacement bond.
The General Fund is composed of revenues from business licenses, franchise fees, parking, local option sales taxes, court, recreation and property taxes. Property tax revenues compose 44 percent of General Fund revenues.
“History shows the marina can sustain itself,” said Berrigan, who has worked at the marina since 1996 when it was owned by the Finch family. “Marina rents and accommodations taxes over the last 10 years have proven that it can be done.” A gross profit toggle is also part of the rent his businesses pay, meaning if they are successful the city will benefit.
Some critics point out those revenue toggles have never been met. Berrigan says the first decade or so was “a hard slog,” especially during and after the recession. But since 2008 his business is trending to be very sustainable.
“We have a good trend and good history over the past 10 years – there is no reason to believe with the amount of people moving to the area that we can’t continue,” he says of his operation, which employs 20 full-time workers and 20 seasonal ones.
The Master Plan
The current draft revitalization plan has been developed by Applied Technology & Management. It reconfigures and improves traffic flow and parking at the marina (which has been an ongoing issue in the summer, especially for those who live near the marina); makes the marina ADA accessible, renews the docks (most of which have not been updated since before Hurricane Hugo), adds a public dock, and substantially improves pedestrian access to and around the facility (see sidebar and graphic for more details).
Berrigan is pleased with the plan. “I think it improves public safety tenfold, maybe more. One of my favorite things is the increased amount of launching dock staging we have… The bike path all the way around is a great addition too, you can see it being used as a recreational path, as is the promenade and the resident kayak and SUP storage. This plan has a lot more in it for the current residents than the original marina did.”
However, some are not sure that spending $5 million redeveloping the marina will provide much extra benefit to residents. Council member Jimmy Carroll has been vocal about his belief that the city has mismanaged the property to the detriment of the residents.
“I’m glad the city bought it, but I don’t think they’ve done a good job managing it,” he told Island Eye News. “I think the marina has outgrown itself. All those other little businesses there bring in a lot of cars. I think [this plan] is a band aid – yes it will improve parking, but we’ve got too much crammed into the marina down there and the parking is overflowing into the neighborhoods.”
Carroll points out that the city could cut back on commercial use in the next 3 years, as two of the leases will be up for renewal between now and 2020. “That would free up parking,” he said.
Berrigan is aware of this concern and says he will not be taking on any more commercial subleases. “With this redeveloped plan my idea is to reduce the commercial dockage and increase the number of recreational [dockage],” he said.
In its meetings on the project, city leaders have emphasized improving resident opportunities for recreation in every step of the revitalization plan. They have determined that the key to this is to increase the potential dock space for residents’ boats.
At the August council meeting, a motion was made to inform one of the two leaseholders, Tidalwave Watersports, that its lease would not be renewed in 2020, in part to free up dock space to allow more options for residents (there is currently a waiting list). Tucker said during the meeting that there have also been “concerns expressed about the business from the adjacent residential neighbor, and others in the community who are concerned that the business has outgrown that location, as well as whether that type of business should remain at the marina.” The motion was not voted on however, and was
tabled for further discussion.
The Morgan Creek Grill currently has seven dock spaces. Its lease is up next month and there is an option for a 3-year extension, which the city is currently negotiating. The Marina Store and Marina Ventures leases were renewed in 2015 and go through 2045.
Carroll believes some of the issues at the marina could be addressed without taking on the new bond. When the old bond expires in 2019 the city would, in theory, have $300,000 a year to put toward the marina, he said.
“Perhaps let’s maintain our city asset and not go further in debt. We may not do everything at one time, we may do it piece meal,” Carroll said. “Ultimately though, it will come down to the referendum. I will do what the residents of the IOP want us to do.”
Mayor Dick Cronin believes it’s important to not just maintain, but also to enhance the city’s assets.
“This is a very positive thing for the future of the island. That’s part of what we have to do, look to the future of this community,” Cronin said. “We do not have a gathering spot on the island where residents can just go and sit and meet each other and enjoy the island life – front beach is more of a commercial center. [The Marina] will have gathering spots for numerous golf carts, a promenade along the intracostal where people can sit and chat and watch what’s going on. It will be, frankly, the center of the island when this is done.”
The Marina Revitalization Referendum will be held Nov. 7, 2017. There will be public presentations of the plan between now and the election, as well as candidate debates where the issue will likely be discussed at length. Information will also be mailed out by the city to all citizens.