Longtime Dilemma of Downtown Fernandina

The time has come to hand off the marina to the private sector – either in an outright sale or in a public/private partnership.

Editor’s note: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace column.


An inflow of capital came ashore in Fernandina Beach this week, with the force of a tidal wave.

A $110 million industrial plant partly owned by a foreign corporation opened next to the Rayonier Advanced Materials plant. Maybe the overflow from this capital surge will reach other parts of the city, such as the beleaguered Fernandina Harbor Marina. The marina could certainly use an injection of vitality.

Fernandina Beach Harbor Marina
Fernandina Beach Harbor Marina Downtown
Unless you are wearing the blinders of a racehorse, you can see the capital infusion in Northeast Florida, and around the state. The large crowd at the grand opening for the LignoTech Florida plant noticed it, including representatives of Borregaard ASA of Norway (joint owners of the new plant with Rayonier).

Silt, Debt, Dysfunction

Silt at Fernandina Harbor Marina
Silt at Fernandina Harbor Marina
Therein lies a solution to a longtime dilemma of downtown Fernandina Beach. Obviously, the inadequate marina has presented a conundrum that city staffers and commissioners cannot resolve. The marina is submerged in silt, debt and dysfunction.

The time has come to hand off the marina to the private sector – either in an outright sale or in a public/private partnership. To build it into something grand, spectacular. This notion has been elevated by Phil Chapman, a city commissioner.

Chapman posed the question to local economic development officials — if someone would buy the marina. After a few inquiries, the answer was overwhelmingly affirmative. Large amounts of capital are looking for places to land, especially in Northeast Florida.

“There’s a lot of capital flowing into the county,” says Laura DiBella, the executive director of the Nassau County Economic Development Board. “There’s plenty of money out there to be had.”

The marina has been beset with problems pretty much since its construction. A flaw in its design causes silt to pile up around the boat slips. And removing the silt is expensive and disruptive.

Hurricane Damage

So the marina sits, mostly inactive, in disrepair. Damage incurred by the last two hurricanes still has not been fixed. Meanwhile, lucrative fuel sales and other operations have been jeopardized.

Fernandina Harbor Marina Sits Mostly Inactive, In Disrepair
Fernandina Harbor Marina Sits Mostly Inactive, In Disrepair
City officials recently raised another notion – to borrow $6 million to repair the vital facility. It was about that time that Chapman, thinking unconventionally, posed the question about a sale.

The futile attempts at improving the marina carry over to the rest of the downtown waterfront. It’s mostly a mess, but the potential is unlimited.

Waterfront developers have already come calling. Lane Development, a premier construction firm from Atlanta, proposed building luxurious townhouses along the waterfront and improving the marina. But city officials thwarted Lane’s plans with time delays and unreasonable demands.

Likewise, city officials sidestepped the most realistic development plan – the ATM study – which called for bulkheading the silted portion of the marina and filling it. The boat slips could be moved outward into the swifter current; and the bulkhead area would provide additional land for public use.

The city had even received several large “Big P” grants, but wasted the opportunity. So past attempts have been futile, including the debacle known as “Forward Fernandina.”

Chapman’s idea has merit. Either that, or dust off the ATM study and move ahead with it. Bringing in private investment would work nicely in either a partnership or outright sale. “This could capture a tremendous amount of capital,” says DiBella.

Our area is booming, like a pirate’s canon. It’s all around us. “You cannot replicate Fernandina,” says DiBella. “It’s a very special place.”


Steve Nicklas
Steve Nicklas
Steve Nicklas is a financial advisor and a chartered retirement planning counselor for a regional U.S. firm who lives on Amelia Island. He is also an award-winning columnist. His business columns also appear in several newspapers in North Florida and South Georgia, and on his personal website at SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book of his favorite columns from the last 20 years, “All About Money.” The book is available in local stores and on Amazon. He can be reached at 904-753-0236 or at [email protected]