Port of Bremerton commissioners decided unanimously Thursday night during a special meeting to seek proposals from private businesses to take over operations of the Bremerton Marina.
The $34 million marina opened in 2008 but sits mostly empty with a vacancy rate that hovers around 60 percent. In addition, the marina's annual $1 million expenses outpaced revenues by about $365,000 last year and it is on track to run a similar deficit this year. The facility itself, funded with a 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation tax, is now paid off.
The port has decided not to lower rates in an effort to boost occupancy, saying that any such move would be bad for the long-term financial health of the marina. Other marinas up and down Puget Sound, meanwhile, sit full of boats and many of them have waiting lists.
Commissioner Larry Stokes said he was approached about a month ago by a private business offering to take over operations of the marina. During Thursday night's meeting, Stokes said that out of fairness, he would not disclose the name of the interested party, which he said has also had discussions with commissioners Roger Zabinski and Axel Strakeljahn.
All three commissioners lauded port staff and the marina itself, but said that looking at proposals from private firms is the responsible thing to do.
"Some will take this personally," Stokes said. "Some will be hurt and blame will be passed from here to there, but the marina is a business and must be run using good business practices."
Stokes said that contrary to any rumors, the port has no intention of closing the marina or letting the quality of service at the facility to deteriorate.
"I'd like to ask every one, if this was your marina and your money, would you not try everything possible to stop the bleeeding?" Stokes said.
Strakeljahn said that no decisions about outsourcing the management of the marina have been made and exploring that possibility is not a reflection of port staff. Strakeljahn also said he was tired of negative press and the portrayal of the marina in media reports.
"If we're presented with a business proposal and we don't look at it, we are remiss of our responsibilities," he said.
Zabinski said that the marina is a huge asset to Bremerton and a great "doorstep to Kitsap County." He, too, was highly complimentary of port staff and said that considering outside proposals to run the marina in no way should be construed as a criticism of their work. Zabinski also acknowledged that he doesn't know what a private firm running the marina would look like, but it is worth finding out.
Port of Bremerton CEO Tim Thomson, though, expressed skepticism about a private firm taking over the marina.
"We don't understand how a marina that is losing $400,000 a year can be turned around and made profitable for reasons we have not yet discovered," he said.
Thomson said he and his staff would be concerned about a private firm maintaing customer service and the appearance of the marina, which he said is "well documented as the best in Puget Sound."
"Regardless of who operates the marina, the port's name will remain above the entry," Thomson said. "We are concerned that once the loss of control of the Bremerton Marina occurs, the Port Orchard Marina, now in competition with the Bremerton Marina, will suffer."
Thomson said the worst case scenario in that situation would be the current vacancies in Bremerton migrating across the bay to Port Orchard. Thomson also said that turning over the Bremerton Marina to a private operator would not give the port's new marketing plan for the marina a chance to succeed.
"The staff's biggest concern is after so many years of private operation, the private operator will fail or default and return the marina back to the port control in inferior condition with a loss of current permanent boaters," Thomson said. "The port will be worse of then, as it is now, with a particularly steep hill to climb to recovery and then to profitability."
Carol Inman, who works in the port's finance department, also raised concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting.
"Public facilities should be owned and operated by the public that it has been created for," she said. "Once you privatize a facility, it becomes a diff entity altogether. If the commission decides to make the Bremerton Marina a private, for-profit entity, then you gentlemen are changing the mission of a public facility."
Inman said she understands the dire nature of the financial situation at the marina and appreciates that the port wants to rely less and less on tax dollars. She also said that she wouldn't be opposed to privatizing the marina as long as the commissioners do their due diligence and make absolutely sure that the interests of the port and the public are protected.
Inman also expressed concern about a private firm slashing rates in Bremerton, only to see the Port Orchard Marina suffer.
"It's not about the number of boats you have in the marina, it's about how much the boats generate in revenue," she said.
Scott Alprin, who owns Emerald Bay Yachts, said he moved his business to the Bremerton Marina in 2008.
"I've been waiting for four or five years now to see a turnaround and there has been no turnaround," Alprin said. "I'm sitting in front of a very unoccupied marina waiting for something to happen."
Alprin said that port has, "an obligation as an anchor business to help build growth and an economy that flows out of the marina, up the street and into downtown Bremerton."
Bill Mark told commissioners that he's been living aboard a boat with his wife and dog for 13 years. He described the staff at the Bremerton Marina as being exceptional, but said that the reputation of the facility is that its too expensive and the water conditions are too rough.
Norm Smith is also a boater, but keeps his vessel at a private marina and yacht club. He said that one thing that the Bremerton Marina is lacking, especially when compared to Port Orchard, is available parking. Another big problem, Smith noted, is ferry swells.
Jack Stanfill told the commission that there were enough people with enough ideas in the room Thursday night to turn the marina around.
"This should not be turned over to the people on the outside to fix our problem," Stanfill said.
In all, some 21 members of the public attended Thursday's special meeting.