PAHOKEE — City commissioners narrowly avoided bringing work on renovation of the municipal marina/campground complex to a screeching halt last week at the culmination of more than five hours of discussions in two separate meetings. Instead, they rejected by a 3-2 vote a move to ditch the contractor they’d hired in January to design and build improvements that the city is anxious to put in place in preparation for an investor group eventually taking over the operations. That group, Everglades Reserves Holdings LLC (or ERH), also plans to reopen the long-closed restaurant that once was and again will be the waterfront’s centerpiece.
What brought it all to the brink of being halted actually was a lack of visible progress of any sort at the city-leased state recreation area on the Lake Okeechobee waterfront; frustrations among both city residents and commissioners were boiling over. Those worries, that the city was being taken for a leisurely sail rather than a full-tilt race against a rigid state deadline by North Palm Beach-based Technomarine Group, prompted newly elected Vice Mayor Clara Murvin to make a motion at the special meeting Friday, April 13, to terminate the city’s contract with the company. It received a quick second from new Commissioner Benny Everett III, who earlier had said: “We’re under public scrutiny, and the people want to see something … work being started or work being done. Our people are frustrated … and have not seen progress being made.”
But the firm actually had been busy turning the city’s vision of what it wanted for the complex into drawings and bid specifications, then lining up qualified contractors to do the renovations and enhancements; plus, a stop-work order apparently had been issued sometime in late March or early April and was blocking any further progress for reasons never explained. City Manager Chandler Williamson told commissioners that communications between Technomarine and his administration had all but ceased, complained that he couldn’t get his phone calls returned and thus, regrettably, had no progress to report to state Department of Economic Opportunity overseers, as required.
So Mayor Keith Babb Jr. called for City Attorney Gary Brandenburg to report what he’d learned in the days since commissioners had demanded information during a highly contentious, nearly three-hour regular meeting on Monday, April 9.
Mr. Brandenburg patiently explained to the city commissioners what they had been missing out on: the work Technomarine has done and specifics about how the physical renovations would proceed, in what time frames, after the city has given Technomarine notice to proceed with the construction.
Fortuitously, the owner of Technomarine Group Inc., Chairman and CEO Erik Sanderson, was present to answer Pahokee officials’ questions, assuage their concerns and demonstrate that his firm was, indeed, not only capable of doing the job but intently laboring to meet the city’s expectations and timeline for improvements.
Mr. Sanderson conceded during remarks before the commission on Friday that a lack of communication had existed and aggravated the situation to the point where his company could lose its contract with the city. Mr. Williamson repeatedly stated during commission discussion that he had been dealing with Technomarine Construction President Jat Talton most of the time since the firm had been hired but that later the company had sent other, unfamiliar representatives out to consult with him who seemed to have “no knowledge” about the project or the deadline the city was facing. Commissioner Felisia Hill complained about “a lack of transparency” that had prevailed regarding progress on the project.
The state’s $1.2 million grant agreement with the city specifies an end date of June 30, 2018, although in the same section it says “DEO may … give grantee an extension when necessary due to events beyond grantee’s control.” Nevertheless, Mr. Williamson was adamant that the grant required timely fulfillment of “deliverables” according to DEO’s schedule or the legislative appropriation that the money came from could be jeopardized. The grant agreement also contains a one-line section saying that it “may not be renewed.”
City Attorney Brandenburg had provided commissioners with the texts of the city’s agreements with both Technomarine Group and the state DEO, and he noted that the Technomarine contract contained no completion dates for the seven tasks it assigned the company. Mr. Williamson insisted that in any event, Technomarine was aware of the state deadline. Mr. Brandenburg proceeded to go over documents the company had provided in response to his request for specific information and then laid out the expected timeline of the long list of improvements, including what had been completetd thus far, for commissioners but noted that the new fishing pier specified as part of the project probably could not be completed before April 2019.
At that point, Mr. Williamson said, “Let me help you out here” and stated that he had “long ago removed the pier from the first phase and put it into the second phase of the project,” for which Pahokee already had received a second grant for $1 million.
Mr. Sanderson confirmed each of the dates and said work was on schedule. Mr. Brandenburg recommended to the commission that it let Technomarine proceed with the project components as laid out in its timeline except for the fishing pier, but Vice Mayor Murvin declined to withdraw or modify her motion to terminate the contract.
After more discussion, a vote was called, and the motion was rejected, with only Commissioners Everett and Murvin voting yes; it failed 3-2 with Mayor Babb and Commissioners Hill and Diane Walker voting no. That meant the contract still was in force, the mayor said, and work would proceed.
Under the company’s schedule, residents will see work commencing as early as next week, although for some of the jobs, fabrication of components will be done off-site.