City says new marina project moving forward despite lawsuits

BAY ST. LOUIS — Though there have been lawsuits over the project, city officials said if all goes according to the plan the new $21 million marina could be built by the end of 2013.

The 163-slip harbor will be just north of the CSX railroad bridge. Workers have begun on some construction related to the project, including a $1.7 million ramp to the site. The second phase, which is the parking area, will begin soon, but bids for the harbor itself also could go out soon.

Harold Olsen, Bay St. Louis director of economic and community development, said the work is fully funded with state and federal grants.

City officials are expecting the work to take about 18 months, but there’s the chance it could be done sooner, depending on the weather.

“Mother Nature has a lot do to with it,” Olsen said. “Hopefully, we will have a calm year of storms. We hope the man upstairs is looking out for us when we construct this.”

While the initial work has gone on, there have been court challenges over the project. A lawsuit filed by the Murphy family alleged some of the waterfront property for the site belonged to them and not the state, but it was dismissed earlier this year.

They have since filed another suit over the project, which alleges the property was taken without due process or proper compensation and they seek damages.

The project has gained approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but Olsen said the city is working with the corps now to make sure any activity there doesn’t harm the recently built Beach Boulevard seawall.

Some pilings for the project are being drilled into the ground, rather than hammered to prevent vibrations from harming the area around the harbor, Olsen said.

The marina site is about 800 feet wide and 1,200 feet long, and the area will be dredged to about 8 feet deep, which the city says will allow for boats as large as 90 feet long. The city is hoping to target boats in the 40- to 50-foot range and the base fees could be $4 to $6 per foot per month for most local boats.

It’s likely the marina will contain a mix of pleasure and commercial boats.

Olsen said there’s plenty of interest, particularly from Louisiana residents who had summer homes in Bay St. Louis before Hurricane Katrina, who want slips.

“They may not want to build their homes back, but they want to put their boat here,” Olsen said. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries.”

The marina site offers the opportunity to moor the boat and then cross Beach Boulevard into the city’s Old Town area. The completion of the new $19 million seawall there earlier this month allows for businesses to open along the beach side of Beach Boulevard. This could attract more traffic to the area.

Olsen said there’s also the new Rutherford Pier, which will be part of the marina project.

“It will really be a first-class tourist spot and also good for the locals,” Olsen said.

Though St. Louis Bay isn’t very deep, Olsen said city officials are confident boats entering the marina won’t have trouble because about 150,000 cubic yards of sand will be dredged.

A hydrographic survey found the water was deeper than once thought. A feasibility study found that according to a database of boat dimensions, about 90 percent of boats up to 90 feet long draw 7 feet of water or less, which would allow them into the new harbor, city officials said.

Though there are provisions covering a casino in the lease, Olsen said he doesn’t believe there will ever be a gambling house at the Bay St. Louis harbor — residents don’t support one and the area lacks the proper zoning.

“We don’t talk casinos around here,” he said. “It isn’t going to happen. We did not go into it with this in my mind. This is not zoned for that and it will never be zoned for that.”

Bay St. Louis resident Carroll Gordon has doubts about the project, and has been opposing it. He worries the channel isn’t deep enough for boats larger than 40 feet to safely enter.

“I can’t imagine the owner of a $500,000 boat risking running aground,” he said.

Gordon said he also questions the harbor’s benefit given the limited revenue it generates — it’s allowed only revenue from slips and some business leases.

“Bay St. Louis does have the liability for all losses,” he said. “If this is true for all the cities, why do they want to sign the lease? Let the state take the money and maintain the harbor. I don’t know of many harbors that operate at any more than break-even.”

He also has doubts officials don’t intend to one day have a casino there.

The agreement Bay St. Louis has with the state, signed in 2011, to lease the property for the marina is the same as Pass Christian, Long Beach and Jackson County have agreed to.

Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie said the agreement his city signed with the state in 2011 seems to be working out well so far. It’s clear to him that under the current law, the site belongs to the state.

“It’s not the city’s (land),” he said. “We have infrastructure, we have buildings there, improvements that belong to the city, but we are on (Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s) ground.”

But Skellie believes the law should be changed to allow local governments to control the Tidelands properties.

Skellie’s city depends on the Tidelands money it receives each year to maintain the harbor, which is a costly enterprise.

Last year, Long Beach got about $300,000 in Tidelands money, he said, which was critical to keeping things up and running.

“Every day, the Gulf saltwater is eating up your pilings, eating up your cement, and any electrical systems, it’s working on you,” he said.

“You have things that go bad much sooner than you would sitting in a (freshwater) lake somewhere. Pilings, piers, bulkhead work, slips, it lets us have money to do some of that stuff. If we didn’t have it, I don’t know what we would do because the harbor doesn’t make up enough money to make capital repairs.”

The Long Beach marina is being reconfigured to accept larger boats, taking it from about 230 slips to 214. The rates are charged by the length of the boat, which means larger boats would yield more in slip fees.

Only about 167 slips are occupied, Skellie said, which cuts into the city’s revenue.

Even though the marina in Long Beach isn’t full, Bay St. Louis officials said they’re confident there’s enough demand for slips to pay the bills. At capacity, the marina will hold about as many boats as are currently in Long Beach.

Lee Seal, a member of the harbor committee, said because the city will have no debt associated with the project, it’ll need only about one-fourth the slips to be occupied to cover the bills. The calculations, which include operating costs, are based on similarly sized marinas along the Gulf, Seal said.

“This covers our employees and their benefits, electricity, everything you need, with maintenance figured in and a reserve to do everything you are going to have to do every 25 years or so.

“Our break-even point was about 40 boats that we need to have in there. It’s not that much. People raise their eyebrows when we say that, but you don’t have any debt,” Seal said.

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