Downtown Marina Missing a Vital Element - Marketing
by Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - While the City of Clearwater was successful in selling its plan for a downtown marina to voters earlier this year, it has not followed through with an effort to seek tenants willing to pay $15.50 per foot per month to store their boats there.
"I'm not a Field of Dreams kind of guy," said Councilmember Paul Gibson during Monday's City Council work session, discussing what he perceived as the lack of a marketing plan for the downtown boat slips, "I think if we don't work, we're not going to fill those slips, and the sooner we get working on it, the better off we're going to be."
Gibson's comments were sparked by his recent attendance at the St Petersburg Boat Show. Why, he wondered, was the city making no effort to market the downtown marina at what he called the largest boat show in southwest Florida? "A boat show would be a great place to go to troll [prospects] for our new marina," Gibson said.
Its experience with high demand for slips at the existing Municipal Marina on Clearwater Beach could explain the city's inattention. Marketing has consisted mainly of managing the slip wait list rather than generating additional demand for full time tenants. Bill Morris, Clearwater's Harbormaster, explained that the city will spend only $11-thousand next year for advertisements in regional boaters guides that target transient boaters.
With the list of boaters who have expressed an interest in the 129-slip downtown marina now more than 400 deep, the city has been content to continue its role as a wait-list manager rather than undertaking a traditional marketing effort. "It's going to be a lottery system. I don't anticipate any problem filling those slips," Morris said.
But all it took to join the downtown slip's list of interested parties was a visit to the city's web site; deposits were not required, a fact not overlooked by Gibson. "It's always good to hear that we have 400 reservations, and that reminds me of all the reservations we've had on condominiums on Clearwater Beach, and how well that worked out when it came time to write contracts. Could we not write contracts now instead of reservations, and have people put up real money - non-refundable money - for the slips so we know who is real and who is not," Gibson asked.
Money has a way of separating players from wannabe's. Morris explained that the wait list for a recreational slip at the Clearwater Municipal Marina fell from 300 to under 50 in 2004 when the city asked for a $100 deposit to remain on the list. "You experienced first hand at the beach marina a very significant drop off when it came time to commit," Gibson observed, arguing for deposits from those on the downtown marina's list of interested parties.
Mayor Frank Hibbard agreed; "We can make it a reasonable amount. I'd rather know what the situation is today versus back when we passed everything," he said.
City Finance Director Margie Simmons suggested accelerating plans for a lottery of the 400 names on the downtown marina list, then asking a deposit from people in the order of their selection. That process would quantify the real demand, with anything short of 129 commitments dictating the marketing effort necessary to reach full capacity.
Profitability of the downtown marina hangs in the balance. The city forecast a profit for the facility assuming 90-percent occupancy for its first year, and 100-percent in all subsequent years. Much less than full occupancy would produce a loss that ultimately would be borne by the city's taxpayers.
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