Park Board hits rough water with new riverfront marina plan

'Ideal solution' or 'terrible deal'?
Posted at 11:18 AM, Dec 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-23 17:34:51-05

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati's meandering journey to build a riverfront marina has taken another surprising twist.

A month after Cincinnati’s Board of Park Commissioners endorsed the idea of a no-bid contract for Queen City Riverboats to install a public boat dock at Cincinnati’s Public Landing, Parks Director Kara Kish asked the city solicitor Tuesday to launch a formal bidding process for the marina’s “construction and operation.”

The policy change came less than a week after the WCPO I-Team started asking questions about the financial terms of the proposed deal and critics warned in letters to the city that the new dock would prevent the Public Landing from being used by overnight passenger vessels like the Delta Queen and American Queen.

“We are committed to maintaining transparency in the development of all park assets and contracted operations,” Kish wrote to Interim City Solicitor Andrew Garth Tuesday. She asked for a bidding process that would allow “public boating access in the summer of 2021.”

Commissioner Kevin Flynn said the change followed conversations he had with Kish and advice she received from city attorneys. Flynn, who is leaving the Park Board this week to run for city council, previously argued there was no reason to invite public bids.

Kevin Flynn
Kevin Flynn served on Cincinnati City Council from 2013 to 2017.

“Quite frankly, after talking with you these last couple of days and really reading over those letters, I’m not sure that I would push for it to be done without an RFP process,” Flynn said Tuesday. “Not because I think someone else is going to come out with a much better deal for the city but rather from a trust perspective of what else has been going on with the city. We need to make sure that every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed.”

Three members of City Council were indicted this year after prosecutors alleged they accepted bribes from undercover agents or FBI informants in exchange for official actions to advance development projects. No one made such an allegation against the park board this week, but critics of the Queen City Riverboats proposal complained the deal should have gotten more scrutiny before commissioners endorsed it in a 5-0 vote on Nov. 19.

“It’s a terrible deal for the city,” BB Riverboats owner Alan Bernstein told the I-Team on Monday. “To ruin the Public Landing and get nothing in return for it is a real crime.”

After learning of Kish’s decision to seek rival proposals, Bernstein said he was relieved, adding: “We will put in a bid.”

Queen City Riverboats did not return the I-Team’s call seeking comment, but owner Don Jones told Cincinnati’s Board of Park Commissioners on Nov. 19 that “time is of the essence” if the city wants to open a riverfront dock in time for Reds Opening Day.

“We’re a river city, a river town and it just makes sense for us to have an access point that we think this dock would allow for,” Jones said. “It would also allow for a small bar/restaurant and some other improvements.”

No free ponies

Like a meandering river, the city’s path toward a riverfront marina has taken many twists.

The Park Board got involved in 2015, when the city won a $1.5 million federal grant through Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources. Flynn was on City Council when it voted to match the grant with money from the city’s capital budget. That led to a $350,000 design for what was then estimated to be a $3.6 million marina at the end of Main Street. The city held a public bidding process to seek a construction manager in 2016.

But changes in leadership at Cincinnati Parks caused the project to stall. By 2019, the federal grant was in danger of expiring. So, the Park Board sought an extension, launched another bid process to find a marina operator and updated its cost estimate for the project – to roughly $5 million. Flynn, who joined the Park Board in 2018, has been shepherding the project ever since.

In August, Flynn asked his fellow commissioners if they’d be willing to match private donations to cover what he estimated to be a $2 million funding gap. The board endorsed his efforts but expressed concerns about operating costs.

“I think a boat dock on the river would be great. I just don’t think it’s a park responsibility,” Park Board Chairman Brad Lindner said at the time. “There’s no such thing as a free pony.”

Flynn said Queen City Riverboats offered a solution for both problems.

In a November 2020 proposal obtained by the I-Team, Queen City Riverboats offered to relocate its Dayton, Kentucky, “head boat” to Cincinnati’s Public Landing and attach a pair of 300-foot docks to either side, providing 1,280 linear feet of dock space that could hold 30 to 40 boats at a time. The city would contribute $1.7 million to the project, which is roughly the amount it set aside for the Main Street marina project.

The proposal called for the city to own the docks and lease them to Queen City Riverboats for a dollar a year over 20 years. The company would cover all operating costs and collect all revenue from the docks, while the city would retain parking revenue on the Public Landing.

“We wouldn’t require anything of the city from an operations standpoint,” Jones told the Park Board in November. “We’ll be there 24/7.”

Because it closed the construction gap and eliminated the risk of operating expenses, the proposal drew rave reviews from Flynn’s fellow park commissioners.

“When I first heard about this proposal… I asked, ‘This sounds too good to be true. What am I missing?’” Commissioner Linda Lee Thomas said. “How is it that we end up with something that is far better than where we started out?”

Lindner called it “an ideal solution” as the board voted 5-0 to authorize Kish to negotiate a contract with Queen City Riverboats.

Critics emerge

But that was before Cincinnati’s river community caught wind of the proposal.

“Running my own small-format charter business, I’m concerned that I wouldn’t be allowed to embark or disembark customers on those docks,” said Andrew Storch, owner of Classy Venture Riverboat Charters. “The way it’s written is that Queen City Riverboats can make the rules for the operation of the dock, and since they’re running their own charter business off that dock it would seem that a good rule for them would be not to allow anybody else.”

Storch also questioned the financial terms of the deal and said the city might get better offers if it invited competing proposals.

“Queen City Riverboats gets in excess of a million dollars to basically move their business to a prime location,” Storch said. “You’d think that such an operation could generate some revenue for the city.”

BB Riverboats owner Alan Bernstein raised another issue. Based on renderings of the proposed dock, Bernstein said, the project would render the Public Landing useless for large riverboats.

“I am right now working with a committee to try and bring Tallstacks back in the next few years. This would totally make that impossible,” Bernstein said of the riverboat festival that brought dozens of boats and millions of visitors to the riverfront between 1988 and 2006.

The American Queen Steamboat Company also expressed concerns in a Dec. 16 letter to the Park Board.

“I look forward to learning more,” Gary Frommelt, vice president of marine operations for the company, wrote. “At this point, however, it appears to me that a development of this magnitude would compromise the ability for large, overnight riverboats to make a landing in Cincinnati.”

When the Cincinnati Park Board met on Dec. 17, Commissioner Susan Castellini asked whether additional public input was needed.

“I think it’s the most fabulous idea that’s been brought forward to us, but I don’t want to have us run into another public buzzsaw because we haven’t communicated this idea with the public,” Castellini said.

Kish said the city solicitor had yet to offer an opinion on whether the contract could be signed without putting the project out for public bid.

“I was operating forward on the presumption that it was the will of the board to enter into this public-private partnership with this vendor,” Kish said. “What I would be looking for is the direction from the city solicitor’s office on how to navigate this moving forward. The desire of the board has been stated. We will continue to navigate this with our representation.”

In the Park Board meetings and in interviews with the I-Team, Flynn argued no public bids were required because public bids had already been taken on a riverfront boat dock and the Queen City Riverboats proposal was a unique response to that process. He also questioned Bernstein’s opposition to the deal.

“Is it that he doesn’t want the competition directly across the river from him?” Flynn said in a Dec. 21 interview. “If he’s got a proposal, let’s see the proposal. Put up or shut up.”

Bernstein said his criticism of the deal has nothing to do with competition.

“I am not opposing Queen City Riverboats moving to the Cincinnati riverfront,” he said. “I am opposing where they want to go. What I want is for them to put the marina where it makes the most sense. The other thing I absolutely want to be sure about is that there’s a fair market return on investment to the city.”