Islamorada considers opening Founders marina to displaced charter fleet

Charter boats evicted from their berths by Hurricane Irma may be able to rent slips for the upcoming tourist season at the Village of Islamorada’s Plantation Key Yacht Harbor at Founders Park.

If the plan comes to fruition — it’s scheduled to be discussed at the Oct. 26 Village Council meeting at 5:30 p.m. at Founders Park — it would be welcome news to the 15 charter boat captains whose slips at the Post Card Inn Beach Resort and Marina at mile maker 84 were destroyed by the powerful Category 4 storm.

“In order to keep my business afloat, Founders Park would be a viable option,” Steve Leopold, captain of the Yabba Dabba Doo charter boat, said at the Oct. 5 Village Council meeting.

Post Card Inn management sent a letter to its charter captains in the days after Irma struck alerting them that “no boats will be able to return to the marina until the [repair] work is done or until further notice from management.”

The Postcard Inn previously operated as Holiday Isle Resort and Marina before being sold to the Carlyle Group in September 2014. The resort was ravaged by Irma’s surge and wind Sept. 10 and 11. Repairs to the oceanfront property and marina could take more than six months, the notice to captains says.

Islamorada Village Manager Seth Lawless told the five-member Village Council that his staff will draft a report about the possibility of opening up some slips at Plantation Yacht Harbor to some of the Post Card Inn boats. Lawless said the village needs to check the status of the leases on the slips.

The Carlyle Group, a multi-billion dollar Washington, D.C.-based investment firm, received a raft of criticism from its captains and local leaders for barring the fishing fleet from the damaged marina instead of embarking on a blitz to repair the slips and get the boats back in, as was done by the marina directly to the south, Whale Harbor.

“One of the major marinas has turned its back on the community,” said Larry Wren, captain of the First Choice charter boat.

Postcard Inn General Manager Eddie Sipple said late last month that the damage to dock pilings, finger piers, buildings and utilities makes it too dangerous to allow boats to return.

Mayor Jim Mooney said he spoke with Carlyle representatives this week and they assured him the goal of the company is to open the marina as soon as possible.

“They need the charter boats as much as the charter boats need them,” Mooney told his colleagues on the dais.

“The docks are first on their list,” Mooney, whose words were met with groans from some skeptical meeting attendees, said. “That’s what they told me.”

Councilwoman Deb Gillis said she was encouraged by Mooney’s intelligence on Carlyle, but simultaneously wary.

“It’s good that they’re saying that,” Gillis said. “And, I hope they stay true to their word.”

Gillis, however, said she thinks Carlyle’s endgame is to ultimately lease the dock space to higher-end clients when repairs are complete. She compared the situation to that faced by residents of Keys trailer parks flooded out and made uninhabitable by Irma.

“I don’t think the docks will come back to the charter boats, just as I don’t think that the trailer parks will come back to the people,” Gillis said.

But, even if they do, “as soon as possible” could still be several months away, and the tourist season is fast approaching.

“If we’re trying to be the charter fishing capital of the world, I think it would be nice to have charter boats,” Councilman Chris Sante said.

Captains say they need a marina like Founders Park, or else they might as well sit this season out.

“It might be best for me just to pack up my boat,” Leopold said.

Community activist and Islamorada native Van Cadenhead urged the village to do anything possible to make sure captains like Wren and Leopold are in business this season.

“Fishing in the Keys is the centerpiece of our existence,” Cadenhead said. “It puts the shine on our whole tourist industry.”

The Village Council floated other options for the Post Card Inn captains, like allowing them to operate from behind canal-front homes at Venetian Shores, or meeting and picking up customers at other marinas.

Councilman Mike Forster said he’s open to any idea that could get the charter boats back in business, but he doubts the feasibility of running charters from people’s back yards, especially when neighbors start hearing “these diesels starting up at 5 in the morning.”

“I’m OK with Venetian Shores as long as we don’t have unintended consequences with the neighbors.

But Leopold told them those ideas would probably end up costing him more money than he’d make from his clients. He said he needs a marina and his own slip to make the season profitable.

“I love what I do, but it’s not my hobby,” he said.

Kevin Wadlow contributed to this report.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204