Recast marina contract

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

We have labored lo these many years under the misimpression that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is responsible for upkeep at the Storm Lake Marina, since the state built and owns the entire operation. But we have learned lately that the 2013 agreement between the state and city negotiated by former City Manager Jim Patrick that the city will pick up capital improvement costs to the marina in addition to managing the place for the state. The agreement, which expires in 2038, is not sustainable under those terms.

The marina has lost money since it was created in the 1970s. It has claimed many vendors who tried and fled. IDNR decided to build a new marina that gave it hope of finally making the operation work, and enhance the image of the lake as a recreational destination for a multi-state region. But the state didn’t want to get into managing a place that sold bait and beer to fishermen, which is foundational to staying alive. So the city, being an agreeable partner for economic development, agreed to oversee the operation and provide for maintenance and upkeep. We thought that meant replacing lights and fixing a broken chair.

The marina stumbled in fits and starts trying to get some fun started. Finally, within the past couple years, something started to happen. Buoy’s took over managing the concessions, and started bringing in bands — the crowd Saturday night was huge. Tom Fitzpatrick is working with Butch Parks of Okoboji to sell boats — Li’l Fitz was swamped giving free boat rides to families over the Memorial Day weekend, and getting some good bites on potential buyers. Finally, the party is starting as it was envisioned.

Yet problems remain. The docks need to be replaced at a cost of some $500,000. That’s more than the city can swing. But if you want a first-rate marina, you have to have decent docks. It is not Buoy’s responsibility to fix docks or fueling facilities, but it has sunk in about $100,000 doing just that. The private partner is doing its part. The public partner must do the same to keep the ball rolling.

Storm Lake and its legislators — most notably at the time, Sen. Steve Kettering of Lake View and Rep. Dan Huseman of Aurelia, both Republicans — were instrumental in legislation dealing with the marine fuel tax that IDNR wanted and needed. That fund built the marina. It should be used for this very thing — maintaining boat ramps and public facilities on state-owned lakes like docks and safe fueling stations. The state and city must come to a better understanding of the difference between a capital improvement and “upkeep,” such as fixing a ceiling fan. Replacing docks at a cost of $500,000 should be a responsibility of the owner.

This has created tension between Buoy’s and city hall. If Buoy’s can’t succeed because of deteriorating permanent capital equipment then we have a hard time imagining who can. It is tough to sell a boat when the docks are a wreck, but if they are a wreck here then Butch Parks can sell that boat from Okoboji instead. That is how it works. The marina will end up growing weeds again. And the state will be stuck with a mess. That is the direction we are navigating.

Let’s change course and keep the momentum going. Let’s get that marina squared away once and for all with a clear agreement that assures the continued access to the lake that the state desires, that increases marine fuel tax revenue to the state, and that creates more tourism and growth for Storm Lake. The private partners proved they are willing to kick in lots of sweat and even some management “upkeep” expenses to get the enterprise off the ground. To keep it there, a strong partnership with the state is needed. We hope our legislators, city officials and lake enthusiasts can draw from that deep reservoir of good will established over the decades to make the Storm Lake Marina work once and for all. We are so close, it would be a shame to see dilapidated docks bring it all down.

DREDGING AND MARINA development washed away a lot of enmity between this community and IDNR that had built up from years of neglect. Now that dredging has concluded, it is important to maintain that deep bond. Neglect of the boat ramp near Lakeside and the marina, in the absence of dredging, leaves some people with the misimpression that we will return the IDNR-Storm Lake relationship to one of estrangement. The local office has been closed. We worry how perceptions could change what is a vital partnership for the future of the lake and the community. We also worry that IDNR has not had a director for some time and will not for months to come. Drift is not good.

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