” I don’t think it would have the slightest chance of making money,”
Maurice Colly, Bay property owner and commercial real estate developer
Opponents of the plan to create a 200-slip marina and waterfront improvement project in Bay St. Louis say the plans look impressive, but fear they may be too far-reaching and – ultimately – too expensive for the city to maintain.
BAY ST LOUIS
A small but determined choir of voices is beginning to be raised against the proposed Bay St. Louis marina and waterfront improvements project, which has widely been characterized as a development that would catapult Old Town into overdue economic prosperity.
During a recent public hearing held over the proposal for the multi-million dollar project, a long line of speakers praised the marina idea. At that meeting, questioning the plan seemed considered akin to cheering for swine flu.
Although a few critics did appear, speaker after speaker at the lengthy, crowded hearing on Jan. 21 talked about the city’s need for economic recovery, and held up a marina and waterfront improvements on Beach Boulevard as a panacea.
But not everyone agrees, or even believes a marina would be successful in the proposed location. Some believe a project located off Washington Street, in the bay’s outer reaches and away from bridges, would have a better chance for success.
Some are questioning the project’s costs, logic, economic chances, and a feasibility study that was performed on the project. There are other questions about a city-appointed Harbor Committee that has been steering the project without informing the public when it meets.
“I don’t think it would have the slightest chance of making money,” said Maurice Colly, an Old Town property owner who spent 50-plus years developing commercial properties. On a scale of one to 10, he said, “As a self-sustaining or profitable venture, I’d rate it a one.”
As proposed, the marina, a new pier and parking area would be built on the beach front between DeMontluzin and Court Streets at a projected cost of more than $22.5 million. The lion’s share of the money comes from federal grants.
But as doubters see it, a city-owned marina with more than 200 boat slips could easily turn into a boondoggle. They fear the project would call for monumental maintenance, extravagant insurance costs and other liabilities, and would fail to lure the large numbers of luxury boats predicted by supporters.
Plans are for the city to own the operation, but have it run by a management firm. However, even with professional management, skeptics say, a marina would run substantial risk of going belly-up and leaving the city holding the bag.
“What’s our guarantee in four years, when this thing flops?” said Ernest Beckemeyer, a beach property owner whose popular bar, The Good Life, disappeared in Hurricane Katrina.
Beckemeyer is currently waging two lawsuits filed in connection with eminent domain proceedings on portions of his beach-front property near the marina site. He points out that with a marina built behind their land, property owners would lose their beach-front access and essentially be hemmed in. Before Hurricane Katrina, The Good Life faced the open beach and bay from the rear.
“Beach-front property owners will not be beach-front property owners any more,” he said.
The project is also being questioned by Old Town resident Carroll Gordon, a retired businessman who has written the City Council and Mayor Les Fillingame about his concerns.
Gordon said he supports waterfront improvements that would bring economic growth to the city, but believes the project as planned presents excessive risk. He said the feasibility study lacks substance and documentation.
When the study was approved by the City Council in 2008, former Mayor Eddie Favre said its cost would be capped at $120,000. Payment was to be made through grants, and the feasibility study eventually involved an engineering firm and three consulting groups.
However, Gordon said in his letter to city officials, “the report is not complete and is inadequate to provide sufficient information for a decision.”
He added that the study did not include a plan to determine profitability or loss, and that some data in the report “is largely unsubstantiated.”
Among his other observations, Gordon said the study lacks adequate supporting sources for revenue projections and does not discuss capital costs for a marina, including insurance, maintenance, environmental control, waste processing, and other items.
Scarce attention is paid in the report to problems boaters would encounter with the CSX Railroad bridge, and dredging costs “will be high and frequent,” Gordon said. The marina’s position places it between the CSX railroad bridge and the highway bridge along U.S. 90, creating potential approach problems for larger boats.
“No 70-foot boats will make it past the railroad bridge, and not all 40-foot boats will make it,” Gordon wrote. In short, his letter said, “This report is inadequate to protect the citizens and to serve as a prospectus for the council or administration to assess the probability of success or failure.”
In addition, he said, “the development and discussion of the project out of the public eye does not instill public confidence.”
That was in reference to a five-member Harbor Commission, which was appointed by Favre before he left office. The commission has been meeting at City Hall with project engineers, regulatory officials and city administration official Buzz Olsen, but its meetings have never been publicly advertised or announced.
“The thing is being pushed through,” Gordon said in separate comments to the Sea Coast Echo. “The thing, economically, does not make sense.”
Harbor Committee member Chet LeBlanc denied that the public has been intentionally left out of the process.
“Anybody and everybody can go to one of those meetings,” he said. “There’s nothing going on secretly or clandestinely with the harbor.”
LeBlanc also said details handled by the committee are in a state of flux, and costs associated with the marina are constantly changing. “Typically, what’s discussed is very sketchy,” he said, adding, “there is no definitive number. The issue of cost is a function of the final design.”
Beckemeyer also said property owners who operated businesses along the beach front before Katrina have never been consulted on the marina, or invited to participate in the process.
“My business was there for 20 years, yet my help or advice was never sought, though it was offered,” he wrote to the City Council.
Critics also express concern that since millions of federal grant dollars are funding the project, the costs don’t appear to have real meaning to local officials and marina proponents who are planning how to spend the money.
“I am very concerned about the city going in this direction,” Beckemeyer said. “This grant money is clouding people’s minds.”
“Any time somebody offers them free money, they run grab it,” Colly said. “Come hell or high water, they’re probably going to build it. But economically, I don’t think it’s going to make sense.”
“If you look at this as a business plan, you have to come down to a realistic view of the costs,” Gordon said.
By J.R. Welsh
The Sea Coast Echo