Paying to Park -June 13, 2002
Tim Granbenhauer, Kelvin Taylor and Bill Eastman provide friendly service at Vero Beach Marina - for a price.
A couple of weeks ago we arrived in Vero Beach, Florida, and did something we almost never do except in Vero Beach. We paid to stay there. Vero Beach has a very well operated municipal marina with excellent facilities. Most of the 77 dock spaces are rented by local boaters. The 57 moorings, however, are primarily intended for transient boats. You can pick up a mooring for $8.56 a night, which lets you use the dinghy dock, dispose your trash, watch TV in the common room and pump out your holding tank. Showers are an additional buck a pop (plus tax) and they charge $3.21 (pricey!) to connect your laptop to a dedicated phone line to do e-mail.
We've been coming to Vero since 1994 mainly because David's stepmom lives there. On our first visit, the mooring fee was $4.28. We thought that was reasonable, given the convenience and quality of service offered. Also, we had just started cruising and were feeling flush. Eight years later, you could argue that, even at double the old rate, the mooring fee is still fair value. But for cruisers like us who almost always anchor out for free (and perhaps aren't feeling as flush as we used to), this represents a serious expense. If we were to pay this fee (little as it seems) every night, we'd drop over $3000 a year. Definitely not in the cruising budget. "So", you might ask, "why not forgo the convenience and anchor somewhere else nearby for gratis?" That's the rub. Since 1988, when Vero Beach established its mooring field, the city has prohibited anchoring.
Except for the family connection, we could probably choose to anchor within another jurisdiction along the Intracoastal Waterway. Maybe. The disturbing fact is that more and more local municipalities in Florida (and elsewhere) are banning anchoring. Bill Eastman, the director of the Vero Beach marina, enthuses about the fact he consults regularly with other Florida municipalities on the success of the Vero "model".
And it's hard to argue that the Vero approach of prohibiting anchoring and renting moorings hasn't been a success, at least from the city's perspective. During the peak fall/winter season, it's not unusual to find virtually every mooring with two transient boats rafted together on it, sometimes even three. The annual Thanksgiving feast, organized by a volunteer group of cruisers each year in Vero, is an event that draws a loyal following from far and wide. Director Eastman beams as he describes how the marina's receipts have burgeoned, much to the satisfaction of his masters at city hall. Since we were last there two years ago, the dinghy dock has been improved, the laundry room expanded, and new shower and rest room facilities added. A new full time staff position is imminent. Maybe, Eastman confides, the mooring rate will go up to $10 next year.
A closer look at the numbers reveals a more complex situation. According to statistics provided by marina staff, approximately 2500 transient boats visited the Vero marina in 1989, the year after the anchor ban. In the year 2000, the number was actually lower, only 2200 boats. The apparent increase in usage is due to the average length of stay. In 1989, transients stayed an average of about 2.4 nights. Today, it's more common for boats (like us) to stay a week or more.
We spoke with Kelvin Taylor, the lead wharfinger and most senior staff member at Vero, about the changes he's seen in the thirteen years he's worked there. "The cruising boats have been getting bigger and they're equipped with more toys. Basically, cruisers today are more affluent. They're the baby boom generation who've made their money and managed to retire early."
In short, boaters with more money are paying more to stay longer in pleasant places like Vero Beach. For them, eight bucks a night is a bargain. The city officials are laughing all the way to the bank and the local businessmen enjoy a rich clientele. So, everyone's happy, right?
Wrong. The budget challenged underclass of the cruising community (with which we tend to associate) usually bypasses places like Vero Beach. Due to family obligations, we stop in and spend money. Lots of it. This time, because we took advantage of the loan of a car, we spent over $700 restocking the boat with food, $100 on clothing and hardware, $50 on fuel, and went out twice for dinner at fine restaurants (okay, we have generous relatives). While we enjoyed the public amenities, we also made a fair contribution to the local economy.
Other towns along the ICW have figured the economics of the cruiser traffic differently from Vero Beach. When we anchored (for free) in front of Georgetown, SC, volunteers came out to the boat to give us a welcome package of useful local information. One of the local supermarkets sent a car down to pick us up at the dinghy dock and returned us there later with our groceries. In Elizabeth City, NC - at the southern entrance to the Dismal Swamp - there are well maintained city docks available for free for visiting boaters (there's a 48 hour limit imposed during the busy season). Local volunteers greet transients, often invite them to a complimentary wine and cheese gathering, and offer all sorts of assistance. At Great Bridge, VA, you can moor for free at a pleasantly situated public dock (24 hour limit). It's only a ten minute walk to a well stocked supermarket and shopping mall. The staff at the municipal marina in Hampton, VA are very friendly and helpful. You can anchor for free across the channel from the marina docks, use their dinghy dock and trash containers, and, for one dollar, buy a hot shower. They have a little alcove set aside in the dockmaster's office for boaters who'd like to use a complimentary phone and connect their laptops to the Internet. A local bus will take you to the major shopping malls.
We're not so naive as to assume that the places cited are offering "free" services out of a gushing sense of altruism. They understand the economic payoffs of wooing transient cruisers. By and large, these are working communities that need as many sources of income as they can muster to survive. Vero Beach and a lot of other Florida cities, on the other hand, are dominated by retirees and part time winter residents. Many of the citizens of Vero are insulated from the economic vicissitudes affecting local businesses. We'd be hard pressed convincing them to welcome transient boaters with open arms. But ultimately the health of their local business community does affect them. One of the in-town malls closed down recently, leaving shoppers with a substantial drive to the mega-stores on the outskirts of the city.
Our advice to the powers that be at Vero Beach is to go ahead, raise the mooring fee to ten bucks if you must, but don't charge for the first two nights. The well-heeled cruisers will continue to hang around, but cheapies like us will also stop in long enough to empty our billfolds in the local stores. And we won't charge you for this advice.
Cheers, David & Eileen