Marina is big business for Port Washington

It’s owned by the city, but like a business it covers its own costs, is expected to make a profit and pays the equivalent of taxes while fueling tourism

THE STAFF AT the Port Washington marina includes (clockwise from front) Harbormaster Dennis Cherny, Assistant Harbormaster Lisa Rathke, Dennis Jung, Matt Huebner, Caleb Tydrick, Matt Haggenjos, Alison Pujanauski, Olivia Gasser and Kaylee Klopp. The marina, which is owned by the city but run as a business, is the heart of Port’s thriving tourism industry. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

The Port Washington marina is owned by the city but run like a business.

It is not subsidized by the city but instead pays its own bills — including debt on construction — and has made a profit virtually every year.

If the expenses exceed the income, the marina uses its reserve funds to make up the difference rather than going to the taxpayers.    

And while it does not pay property taxes because it is owned by the city, the marina has traditionally made a payment in lieu of taxes to the city of between $30,000 and $40,000 annually, although that amount has gone down in years where the facility has struggled.

Perhaps most importantly, the marina is the heart of the city’s tourism industry, which has replaced manufacturing as the biggest business in town.

In addition to the many boaters who lease slips in the marina for the season, there are hundreds of transient vessels that rent spaces throughout the summer.

Charter fishing, which is based in the north slip marina, brings in millions of dollars to the city as out-of-town anglers spend money not just on the charters but on lodging, dining and entertainment.

And those dollars help keep the downtown vibrant, supporting existing businesses and bringing in new ones.

“I don’t think people know how valuable it is, and what we do,” Harbormaster Dennis Cherny said of the marina. “This draws a lot of people.

“You’ve got 270 boats in here, and there are certainly two people on every one. They bring their friends in. Think about that happening all summer long — that’s a lot of people. Then you add in the transient boaters, and the sailboat races.”

About four years ago, Cherny said, a study done by Michigan State University estimated the economic impact of the marina to be $4 million — a figure many believe is conservative.

“I have to assume today that’s closer to $5 million,” Cherny said, adding a study commissioned by the charter fishermen years ago put their economic impact on the city at more than $2 million.

And, like other businesses, the marina has to compete for customers  — both annual slip renters and transients — with other facilities from Racine to Sturgeon Bay. Many are long-tirm customers, Cherny noted.

The bulk of the marina’s tenants come from Ozaukee County, he said. Sixty five are from Port, 23 from Grafton, 11 each from Mequon and Cedarburg, 12 from Saukville, six from Belgium, four from Fredonia and one from Thiensville.

Another 23 are from Green Bay, he said, while Illinois boaters rent seven slips, Iowa and Minnesota each four, Florida two and California and Nebraska each one.

Slips at the marina range in price from $1,647 for a 30-foot boat to $4,060 for 50-foot boats. Charter boats — there are 29 this year — pay $3,000 to $3,600 annually based on their length, Cherny said, while transients pay roughly $1.25 per foot per night with a minimum daily rate of $43.20.

Most of the transient boaters hail from Lake Michigan’s western shore and  Michigan, he said.

Last year, the marina earned $450,000 in slip rentals in the main marina and $75,000 in the north slip marina, as well as $75,000 in transient rentals, Cherny said.

In addition, the marina earns revenue from launch fees as well as the sale of fuel, ice, items in its mini-store and apparel, he said.

“In a good year, fuel sales could be $100,000,” Cherny said.

The key to the success of the Port marina is multi-pronged, Cherny said, but the biggest reason is its proximity to downtown.

“Being so close to the downtown, you get off your boat and you’re at Dockside Deli and all the city has to offer. That’s a big attraction,” he said, noting boaters are just a few steps from restaurants, taverns and shopping, as well as the myriad activities in the community.

“If you stay here four or five days, you can go to a different restaurant every day. You’re steps from the beaches, from the bike path.”

Other marinas are located outside their downtowns, away from the action, he said.

The fact that the Port marina is a modern facility with floating piers and a pump-out system at each berth helps it compete with other marinas, as do the amenities offered, Cherny said.

They include swimming at the outdoor pool or the indoor pool at the Holiday Inn, five gas grills and a picnic area for boaters to use, as well as a lounge with showers and a laundry.

The marina staff, which consists of Cherny, Assistant Harbormaster Lisa Rathke and 20 part-time seasonal workers, also helps bring in business, he said.

“Because I was a boater, I’ve emphasized that,” Cherny said. “We provide good service. All our people are friendly. When someone needs something, we take care of it as quickly as we can.”

The Port marina was also the first certified Clean Marina in the state, something it received for management practices that help protect the quality of the lake water, Cherny said.

“It seems our tenants are proud to be part of a Clean Marina,” he said.

It’s hard to believe the idea of a marina in Port was once controversial, but the idea split the city in the 1970s.

Before there was a marina, Cherny said, boats would moor on “cans” — 50-gallon barrels tied to the bottom — in the outer harbor. Boaters would paddle out to their boats in dinghies, and return to land the same way.

It was so treacherous that boaters were warned that it was better to ride out a storm on the lake than to tie up in Port Washington, he said.

After a 1977 storm that damaged virtually every boat docked in Port, the concept of building a marina was explored by the city.

But the idea of spending millions to create the marina was defeated in an advisory referendum, but the Common Council moved ahead with the plan anyway — and most of the officials were voted out of office during the next election.

The $4.5 million marina opened with 180 slips in 1982 to great fanfare, and expansions in 1998 and 2006 have added not just a fifth pier but the north slip marina, increasing the number of available slips to 245.

Those slips have been full virtually every year, Cherny said, adding there’s often been a waiting list.

In 1998, as water levels sank to some of the lowest on record, the marina underwent a $2.9 million renovation that replaced the fixed piers with floating ones.

Although the marina repaid its original construction debt in 2000, it is currently paying roughly $225,000 annually for the other projects. That debt should be paid off in 12 years, Cherny said.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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