"Look at this," Steeven Knight says, standing on the bank, gesturing to the nearby shrimp boats and then, farther away, to the Atlantic Ocean, close enough to be seen on a clear day. "Isn't this perfect?"
Perfect, Knight says, for a high-end marina that he hopes will soon occupy the site, providing boat storage space and ocean access (as well as gourmet sandwiches) for the members of the association that will own the facility.
Knight's Yacht Clubs of the Americas is in the process of buying the Heckscher Drive parcel, which it will turn into the Fort George Harbor Marina, its ninth location. Unlike most marinas, the wet and dry slips in YCOA facilities are bought, not rented.
The project is both a business for Knight, who comes to marina construction after a career in land development, and the fulfillment of a passion for boating.
"People come to Florida to boat and golf," Knight said. "But now, there's nowhere for people to put their boats."
Statewide, riverfront property that used to house marinas is being snapped up for residential development, curtailing storage space and public access to the waterways. Right now, according to state figures, there is one dry-stack spot for every 17 registered vessels in Duval County.
The Yacht Club of the America idea isn't public access - the slips and boat barn at the site will be for members only - but it is designed to ensure that the property can never become something other than a marina. Those who spend between $124,000 and $220,000 for a spot in the barn or $210,000 to $300,000 for a wet slip will become part-owners of the property, a system using the same legal set-up as a condominium association. The site could only be sold if 80 percent of the owners agree.
Owners will also benefit from getting supplies - from gas to food - at wholesale cost, and will be able to use the club's other locations, including one in the Bahamas. Across its network, YCOA has 3,500 dry slips and 450 wet slips, Knight said. Six hundred members have joined since the business started in 2004, when Knight opened YCOA's first marina in Sanibel, near Fort Myers.
The company tried to break into the North Florida market last year, announcing in September that it would develop a 35-wet-slip facility in St. Augustine. After first looking at the site where the San Sebastian Marina ended up being built, Knight shifted north to a 14-acre site near the multimillion-dollar project to redevelop the historic area.
That project fell through when the city decided it didn't want a 300-slot boat barn across the river from the $250 million Sebastian Inland Harbor project, which is designed to bring condominiums, hotels and high-end shops to the now-blighted area of the city.
That led Knight to move even farther north, to the St. George site, a parcel where local developer Buddy Kollar has long dreamed of establishing a marina. He purchased the site in 2001 and has been working to get permits and approval since.
One reason for a dearth of marina construction in Florida is the overwhelming amount of paperwork needed to turn a greenfield site into a marina - paperwork that Kollar worked on for years.
During that time, the scope of the project the developer had in mind was cut back, from the 150 wet slips he originally envisioned to the 35 he ended up being permitted for.
"Being a boater, I don't have to tell you how many marinas have become condos," Kollar said last year, before selling the property.
Presaging Knight, he viewed the site similarly: "It's perfect," he said. "There's lots of parking, there's no manatees. The ocean is right there."
Knight will close on the property, which he's buying for $4.3 million, on March 22, but already, with Kollar's permission, he is clearing the land, preparing the way for the fireplace-equipped clubhouse and sauna rooms he envisions rising along the bank.
Once the purchase is complete, the developer anticipates construction beginning by mid-May and the marina opening for business in November.
"I think the people of Jacksonville, once they see the level of service and the value of the asset, will snap it up," Knight said. "As the population grows, more and more people are going to need a place to keep their boat."
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