Viking may ship out if plan doesn't float

 

RIVIERA BEACH Call it Bob Healey's last stand - at least in Riviera Beach.

About eight years after the New Jersey yacht maker opened operations here, Healey has grown frustrated with the lack of progress in the city's $2.4 billion waterfront redevelopment. Since 2005, his company, Viking Inlet Harbor Properties, has been at the center of the redevelopment effort after being chosen master developer.

But an erratic economy, changes in Florida eminent domain laws and unpredictable local politics have kept Healey from developing 400 acres of mostly blight along the Intracoastal Waterway.

"We've made substantial investments in Riviera Beach," Healey said. "If we can't cut a deal, we're going to pack it in."

That deal surfaced last week when Viking made public a scaled-back redevelopment plan. Instead of 400 acres, the plan calls for developing 26 acres and hinges on Viking's leasing the municipal marina and upgrading Bicentennial Park.

Initial reviews were mixed, with some residents arguing that the city should maintain control of the marina and not hand it over to a developer. Viking's plan also comes at a time of turbulence at the marina, where some boat owners are battling the city over proposed hikes in insurance coverage and others are bailing.

Viking, meanwhile, hopes to gain support as more residents see the proposal. They will get that opportunity soon during a series of meetings hosted by the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, which the community redevelopment agency hired to reevaluate the original redevelopment plan.

Floyd Johnson, the CRA's executive director, believes Viking's reduced plan is enough to spark an environment that will draw others to invest in Riviera Beach.

"I don't see it as a scaling back into perpetuity," Johnson said. "Rather, I see it as an opportunity to get things properly started."

Marina cleanup in works

Even before Viking unveiled its proposal, the city was taking steps to clean up the marina. They include:

  • Creating a new marina lease that requires tenants to register their boats and show proof of insurance.
     
  • Hiring a collection agency to pursue some 34 boat owners who owe the city about $294,000 in back rent.
     
  • Using a $5 million Palm Beach County grant to make upgrades at the marina.
     
  • Participating in Palm Beach County's tree removal program to remove dozens of pine trees at nearby Bicentennial Park to improve its appearance.
     

    The city and Viking acknowledge that the marina is a potential gold mine. However, the developer's deep pockets may give it a quicker and more elaborate makeover.

    Viking's proposal calls for the master developer to make $30 million in improvements at the marina. In addition, Viking will install boardwalks that link the marina to the park as well as building a band shell and stage on park property.

    "The park is a public asset," said Mike Clark, president of Viking Associates, the company's real estate development arm. "All we want to do is get in there and clean it up."

    At the same time, Viking wants to make its $50 million investment in buying land, designing plans and starting a Riviera Beach charter school pay off.

    By leasing the marina and providing upgrades to the park, Viking's plan would create a waterfront attraction that will make Riviera Beach an international destination, Clark said.

    "It has to be a focal point for recreational and leisure time activities," said Clark, who led Viking's presentation of the revised plan at last week's CRA meeting.

    Still, some of the city-proposed changes at the marina have prompted a number of boat owners to leave the marina rather than abide by the new rules, said Doug Mason, the city's interim marina director.

    And some skipped out on what they owe the city, or left derelict boats behind.

    Dawn Pardo, a Singer Island resident and activist, believes Viking can manage the marina better than the city. Even longtime tenants agree that it's aging and in desperate need of repairs.

    "I don't think the city should be in the business of running the marina," Pardo said. "We all know that Viking is going to be a good neighbor. They've already proven it."

    Pardo pointed to Viking's launching of the Riviera Beach Maritime Academy, which teaches youths about the marine industry.

    To run the school, Viking tapped the city's former marina director George Carter, who retired from the city in 2006.

    Attorney Wayne Richards, who represents Wayne Huizenga Jr., said he shared Viking's plan with his client. Huizenga owns several parcels in the redevelopment area, including famed yacht maker Rybovich and Sons' facility at 20th Street and Broadway.

    "I presented the plan to the folks at Rybovich and their response was very positive," Richards said. "It is critical that we make Riviera Beach a destination point."

    Huizenga plan on hold

    Huizenga had plans to build a mega-yacht servicing center just north of Viking's proposed project. Those plans have been on hold while officials sort out the redevelopment plan.

    Even former Councilman and retired Judge Edward Rodgers has been drawn back into the process.

    Rodgers said Johnson and Mayor Thomas Masters asked him to chair the steering committee whose mission is to get residents to participate in the reevaluation process.

    Rodgers sat on the council when former Mayor Michael Brown was pushing for a much larger redevelopment plan. Today, Rodgers believes a less intensive approach may produce results the former plan failed to do.

    Brown, meanwhile, is watching the dismantling of his efforts.

    "My biggest disappointment is that we spent eight years and a significant amount of money with some of the best professionals in the nation coming up with our plan," Brown said. "Now all of sudden they want to throw all of that work out.

    "I don't blame Viking," he said. "Viking is only playing the hand it's been dealt."