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Slew of changes, including $5 parking fee, to take effect at Small Boat Harbor

If you tie up your boat at Buffalo’s Small Boat Harbor, you’re going to like the $10 million in improvements and amenities the marina’s new private operator plans for the next few years.

But if you visit Dug’s Dive for a fish fry or just cruise in to watch the sun set and all the dockside activity, you might have to fork over $5 to park in a previously free lot.

Down along Fuhrmann Boulevard, it’s not your father’s Small Boat Harbor any longer.

After almost 60 years of control by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and its predecessor agency, New York State’s biggest marina enters a new era this spring. The teeming waterfront destination for boaters and nonboaters is now owned by the state parks system, which leases it to a private contractor, Safe Harbor Inc. of Tennessee.

With the switch comes a slew of changes: new docks by 2017, dredging the harbor, converting Dug’s Dive into a marine store and offices, building a new restaurant building, replacing electric and water hookups and repaving the parking lot.

That bodes well for a boating community embracing the changes or at least withholding judgment.

But the company running the marina and its 1,037 slips is trying to earn a buck in the process. As a result, the new landlord already is effecting changes aimed at protecting boaters who pay for Small Boat Harbor slips and parking that comes with them.

That means a $5 parking fee is scheduled to begin some time this season for non-slip holders.

“It’s a marina now, not a public park,” said Darby Campbell, owner of Safe Harbor. “We’ll provide public access, but our task is to rebuild that marina.”

Campbell said he realizes paying for parking will prove unpopular and was reluctant to impose the $5 fee, but as a businessman, he sees no other choice. And he points to his plans to eventually invest $10 million in the facility. While original plans called for the $5 fee to begin this weekend, he now says he wants to work with Dug’s Dive and other stakeholders to determine how best to proceed. But the parking charges are coming.

“I want to do the best I can for the folks of Buffalo. That’s what I was brought in to do,” he said. “But there has to be a return on the investment.”

Safe Harbor controls 532 parking slots out of about 800 throughout the Small Boat Harbor complex. Campbell said that at some point this summer $5 will charged for non-slip holders although it is not yet known whether the company will be charging for all 532 spots at all times.

The new owner said he wants to maintain public access, but servicing 1,200 eventual slip holders remains his priority. That means providing nearby parking.

“If your wife has to drag a cooler a quarter mile, you’re going to find another marina,” he said, explaining the last situation paying slip holders want to encounter is a full parking lot.

But others are upset with parking fees on a waterfront they thought would always remain accessible.

Already, the owner of Dug’s Dive is fuming over the uncertainty with his new landlord. Although Tucker Curtin emphasizes Safe Harbor is open to dialogue and is now working with him, he is disappointed over the lack of previous communication. He said Safe Harbor promises customers can still park in the lots, but remains unsure how many can avoid the $5 fee beyond the 30 spaces reserved for the restaurant.

Campbell points out free parking will still be available along Fuhrmann Boulevard or in an adjoining free lot south of Dug’s Dive.

“Charging for parking is certainly going to deter people from coming down to the waterfront,” said Curtin, who plans to relocate Dug’s Dive next year because of new conditions he considers stifling.“Anything that diminishes access to a contiguous waterfront is a detriment to future generations. And taxpayers paid a lot of money for that infrastructure.”

On a busy summer weekend, Dug’s Dive handles 1,200 to 1,400 patrons a day. Curtin doubts many will shell out money to both park and dine, throwing out of whack his business model. And because the rent he pays Safe Harbor is based on volume, he believes fewer customers will ultimately end up shortchanging the new marina operator.

“I can take a couple of punches,” he said of change under new ownership, “but I would rather focus on taking care of my customers than taking care of the landlord. And without them, I can’t pay the landlord.”

Curtin also believes the company’s emphasis on “making a buck” ignores a larger responsibility to open a Lake Erie coastline inaccessible for generations.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation selected Knoxville-based Safe Harbor in February over two competing bidders. Under terms of the 25-year lease, which includes two 10-year renewal options, Safe Harbor will oversee the 1,037-slip marina, 8,000-square-foot restaurant, administration building, parking spaces, bait shop and storage facilities.

The company will pay between $75,000 and $90,750 annually during the life of the lease, along with 5 percent of rent proceeds, 2 percent of fuel sales and 1 percent from boat sales or services.

Safe Harbor raised slip fees 7 percent this year, and can raise them by the same rate for the next four years, and up to 5 percent per year in following years – according to the contract.

That is already battering the wallets of longtime slip holders. Many accept higher fees as the price for new improvements and amenities.

Bart Horrigan of Buffalo says most boaters at the facility are adopting a “wait and see” attitude amid concerns that it may ultimately prove too expensive.

“Buffalo is changing and more of a premium will now be placed on those kinds of things,” he said. “Boating is a luxury, and it’s just a matter of how much people will continue to want to pony up.”

The company sponsored a meeting with more than 200 slip holders and other harbor patrons last week at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Staging such a meeting and communicating with marina patrons represented a step forward from NFTA days, said Karen Dwigen, another boater and a member of the Small Boat Harbor Slip Holders Association.

She looks forward to Campbell’s plans to expand the marina, replace docks, dredge the harbor, landscape the shore and build a new restaurant and support facilities.

“People are happy because something needs to be done there,” Dwigen said. “It’s all rusty now. They promised us new docks by 2017, and that’s a positive thing.”

She is not looking forward to the 7 percent increase in slip fees this year, but is willing to give it a chance. “We’ll see how it all pans out,” she said.

State parks spokesman Randy Simons would not discuss the situation, issuing an emailed statement that did not address questions The Buffalo News sought to ask about waterfront accessibility. He did not return a phone call seeking further details.

Campbell, meanwhile, spelled out his excitement over taking over a facility he labels a “jewel.” But he emphasized his company is not running a park so much as a business, and his primary responsibility lies in serving his marina customers.

“My concern and my goal, and what I am tasked to do, is create the best marina I can and protect the slip holders,” Campbell said. “They deserve to have it upgraded to the level it needs to be … and I want to provide a high level of service. To do that I’ve got to charge to park.”

He said he also recognizes that his revenues depend on Dug’s Dive revenues and that he will do nothing to hurt Curtin’s business. He admits that at this stage he does not know how the parking situation will evolve, but he will make it work by cooperating with Curtin.

“I don’t know the answer. Tucker and I will have to work together,” Campbell said. “I’m not going to hurt Tucker’s business.”