Many South Jersey towns that own and operate municipal docks and boat ramps continue to invest taxpayer dollars to maintain them, even though the docks are often not profitable.
“It’s not a great avenue of revenue,” Little Egg Harbor Township Deputy Mayor Ray Gormley said of his municipality’s Parkertown Docks, on which about $1 million was spent in 2008 to renovate.
“Where the value is, is in giving families a nice and safe place in their own town where they can spend an afternoon fishing and crabbing, or a convenient place to stop during a day out on the water,” Gormley said.
Decades ago, the Parkertown Docks would regularly have 150 boats docked along the aptly named Dock Street. There was a fully functioning restaurant, and the position of dock master — which Gormley’s late father, James, held for years — was a prestigious position in the township.
“Back in the old days, when clamming and fishing in the Barnegat Bay was at its height, it is where everybody went,” said Gormley, who saw the docks renamed for his father in 2008. “But the bay is a lot different these days. … There is unfortunately not as much of that stuff going on anymore.”
The docks are certainly in better condition today than the neglected eyesore they were prior to the $1 million renovation project that repaired 1,200 feet of bulkhead and 200 feet of floating docks in 2008.
A majority of the costs were funded through state and federal grants, leaving Little Egg Harbor taxpayers a bill of less than $90,000.
However, despite the renovations and the free cost to use the docks, there are rarely ever more than a handful of boats docked there at once. And while the township has hosted family nights and boating events at the docks, there is no restaurant, no boat slips and definitely no need for a dock master.
“It hasn’t really made too much of an impact to be honest,” Gormley said of how usage changed after the renovation. “Because of the economy, there are a lot less boats out on the water. And they’re either staying dry-docked or staying out of the water entirely.”
Still, Gormley said the investment was worthwhile.
“The purpose was never to make a profit. The docks were in such a state of disrepair, if we didn’t do anything, that area could have been eventually wiped out by Mother Nature,” Gormley said. “And now it’s been reinforced, it’s been updated and it is a nice, clean place to spend the day.”
Barnegat Township also completed an approximately $250,000 renovation of its municipal dock on East Bay Avenue in 2008. That project, funded entirely through local tax dollars, was done to address safety issues at the four-acre site.
“We’ve come a long way since the project began in 2007,” said Township Administrator David Breeden. “All of the work was done in-house. It all turned out very well, and we continue to make improvements.”
The docks are a popular spot for people to put their boats in the water or just sit and gaze out at Barnegat Bay. It is also the site of regular community events, such as boat races and a summer concert series.
But while Barnegat Township generates about $40,000 in revenue annually through boat ramp fees, most, if not all, of that money goes toward funding the cost of staffing and maintaining the dock, Breeden said.
“It’s not a revenue-generator; it’s not meant to be,” Breeden said. “With so much limited public access left to the bay, we wanted the residents of Barnegat to have a location where they could get out onto the bay, to be able to go fishing or crabbing or just enjoy the view.
“The governing body viewed renovating the dock as an excellent opportunity to entice community development and recreation,” Breeden said.
But there are towns that do turn small profits with their docks.
Tuckerton paid $12,640 to have the bulkheads and 30 dock stalls at its municipal dock refurbished in 2000. Since 2004, Tuckerton has generated $90,450 by renting those stalls.
Linwood spent $17,000 to renovate its Seaview Avenue Dock in 2002. The city does not charge a fee to use the dock, but it does require users to purchase permits to park at the dock, generating more than $8,000 a year between 2004 and 2009. That revenue has not topped $7,700 the past two years.
Ocean City jumped into the municipal marina business in 2009 when it purchased a marina at Second Street and Bay Avenue for $3 million.
On June 28, the city appointed a private developer to try to turn the marina into something more profitable.
“The decision was twofold. First, it was a bayfront property we had the opportunity to leave as open space. Second, it was another opportunity to give public access to the bayfront,” said Jim Mallon, the city’s director of community services.
“This is an island resort, and we realize that not everyone who lives here or has boats here lives on the bay. The marina offers people who live in the middle of the island a place to have their boats in the water at a fairly reasonable rate.”
The city also recently renovated its smaller boat ramp at the Bayside Center between Fifth and Sixth streets for $289,000.
One of the reasons the city is working with a private developer is because the marina generated a little more than $20,000 in 2011, which barely covered the salaries for the marina’s two seasonal employees of $18,000. Another was the commitment it would take for the marina to reach its potential.
“We think we can do a lot more there, but the investment is too significant to take it on as a city,” said Mallon, adding that the new investor would be responsible for funding upgrades and repairs to the marina.
“The focus for the city was always public access, and that will remain. But at the same time, with the partnership in place, the marina will be able to be upgraded to provide a top-of-the-line and state-of-the-art docking area, including lifts, which isn’t something the city would be capable of doing on its own at this point,” Mallon said.
Still, advocates say, municipal docks are worth the investment.
“It’s about quality of life, preserving our heritage and promoting recreation. And renovating the docks accomplished all three,” Gormley said. “So was the investment worth it? Absolutely.”
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