The Public Eye

The Public Eye: City hopes to turn around half-empty Sacramento Marina

As the economy tanked during the recession, luxuries like boats and marina rental space were among the first things families cut from their budgets. The city of Sacramento is learning that those items are also among the last things restored as the economy improves.

Occupancy rates at the city-operated marina at Miller Park on the Sacramento River remain at less than half what they were eight years ago, city officials said. The Sacramento Marina has 475 slips in a protected basin nestled into the 57-acre park just south of downtown.

As a result of that trend – along with uncertainty about when slip rentals will rebound – the city has reworked a loan it has with the state’s Department of Boating and Waterways , city budget officials announced last week. Those loans funded a multistage renovation of the marina, replacing wooden docks with concrete docks and paying for roofs over most of the slips.

The annual debt payments had been set at just over $1 million a year. But under an agreement with the state, the city will instead pay $521,226 on the debt this August. The payments would increase over time if the marina generates more revenue.

“The marina is making money,” said Jerry Way, the head of public works. “It’s just not making enough right now to cover the debt service.”

According to figures provided by the city, the marina’s expenses – including loan payments, employee salaries and maintenance costs – outpaced revenue for the past four fiscal years. Revenue has fallen from more than $1.75 million in 2009 to $1.18 million last year, figures show.

The city’s Department of Public Works is exploring a new business model for the marina in an attempt to beef up revenue. Staff officials expect to take that business plan to the City Council for approval within the next several weeks.

The foundation of the new model is a flexible rate plan that could allow boaters to pay variable rates depending on the season. For now, rental slip fees are stagnant and are based on the size of the docking area. The rates range from $249 a month for a 25-foot uncovered slip to $734 a month for a covered 50-foot docking area.

Rebecca Bitter, interim director of the city’s Convention, Culture and Leisure Department, said privately operated marinas can negotiate with individual boat owners and offer different prices to different people. But the city can’t do that; it has to offer the same rates to everyone.

“We can’t treat anyone differently,” she said. “Our rates have been very static.”

Way said the new business model also envisions an investment in the marina facilities, including sprucing up the landscaping and restrooms, and providing better security in the parking areas. City officials said they want to attract some of the boaters who left in recent years to dock their vessels at other spots on the Sacramento River.

City figures show the marina was 95.6 percent full in 2003. By last year, that figure had dropped to 44.9 percent.

“We know we’ve lost customers to both the economy and our competitors,” Way said. “And we know that if we provide some of the amenities that the boating community wants, we’ll attract new customers and get some of the customers back that we lost.”