Grassroots Partnership Saves Great Kills Marina

By Nicole Palya Wood

A powerboater and a sailor team up to passionately defend their boating community, a Staten Island legacy, and their access to the water.

Photo of boat damaged by Hurricane SandyOne of the boats from Nichols Great Kills Marina on Staten Island that got swept away during Hurricane Sandy.

The storm was epic, like a scene from an action film, with angry red and purple radar pictures emblazoned on every TV screen from Florida to Maine. The monster hurricane spanned 1,100 miles and pushed nine feet of storm surge on top of a high tide. However, this story is more about a handful of Davids than the Goliath we've come to know as Superstorm Sandy. It's about a small New York community, in the middle of that October 2012 devastation, which refused to take no for an answer. They found a voice, and a cause worth fighting for.

Ten miles downriver from the Statue of Liberty, Nichols Great Kills Marina was home to 350 boats and the only public marina for miles on Staten Island. The devastation at the marina was so complete, boat owners had to wait four days before being allowed down to where the marina had been. When they saw boats still attached to their piers lying on the opposite side of the bay in piles, Nichols' slipholders and customers shook their heads and dabbed wet eyes. Fred DeLise, a patron for more than 30 years, began asking the marina manager and concessionaire when they would start rebuilding. No one knew.

But within two weeks, more devastating news echoed through the group. Even though the concessionaire, Marinas of the Future (MOF), had offered to pay rebuilding costs, the National Park Service (NPS), which owns the land and is in charge of the 26,000-acre Gateway National Recreational Area, would not renew MOF's lease. Nichols Great Kills Marina would not be rebuilt.

Once a nuclear dumping ground in the 1940s and ‘50s, the Great Kills section of the park still had an invisible black eye from its once-high radiation level. In addition, for years MOF had only been given short-term leases of one year, rather than the preferred three-year leases. This was likely due to the entire Gateway park system, encompassing parts of New Jersey and New York along Raritan Bay, being tapped for renovation under a newly proposed 20-year Draft General Management Plan. Alternatives for Great Kills Marina and sections of the park had varied, but this was the first time the NPS had clearly said the marina would not be part of the park's future. To make matters worse, in addition to the expansive rebuild necessary above the waterline after Sandy, an underwater survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation backed up fears that the bulkhead of the marina had been severely compromised by the storm and surge.

Meet The Odd Couple

Refusing to accept the NPS decision about the park closure, Fred DeLise found an improbable but equally motivated advocate in Marc Competiello. "The marina played matchmaker and we were an unlikely pair," says DeLise. "You know, he's a sailboat guy, and I'm a powerboater. But we quickly buried that behind us. We were both avid boaters who loved this marina, and neither of us could stand to see all of the other marinas begin to rebuild while nothing happened at Nichols." Within days and with the help of his daughter, DeLise established his first Facebook page, "Save Great Kills Park Marina Community."

"Sandy gave them the excuse to do away with the marina," said DeLise, "but we weren't taking no for an answer. We contacted the local news stations, Congressman Michael Grimm and Senator Charles Schumer's offices, and we called BoatUS Government Affairs. Local TV station NY1 came and covered the story almost immediately. BoatUS got in touch with Senator Schumer's office and met with Congressman Grimm's staff, as well as reaching out and sending a letter to Diane Chalfant, acting commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor." DeLise and Competiello, along with the other Great Kills community members also contacted Linda Baran, president of the local Chamber of Commerce for Staten Island, who brought to the table concerns not just for the boaters losing their marina but for the businesses on Staten Island that could lose 350 slips' worth of boaters and the revenue they brought to the local economy.

"The reason Staten Island Chamber of Commerce decided to support the boaters was simple," said Baran. "If this facility closed, the hundreds of families who frequent Great Kills Park Marina would most likely move their boats and business to New Jersey, and Staten Island and our local economy would suffer."

A Reversal Of Fortune

For three months, DeLise, Competiello, and the boaters who made up the grassroots group Save Great Kills Park Marina, wrote letters, attended NPS meetings on the draft-management plan, and pleaded their case to any media outlet that would listen. On January 23, 2013, under this increasing pressure, the Director of the National Park System, Jonathan Jarvis, reversed positions on the future of Great Kills and agreed to extend MOF a three-year permit, which gave the concessionaire the go-ahead to invest in rebuilding the docks and marina. Additionally, Senator Schumer said federal monies would likely be available through the NPS due to the passage of the Sandy Relief Bill in early January. Combined, this was a giant grassroots win for the sailor and powerboater from Staten Island, and the group of boaters who stood with them.

Photo of the Save Great Kills Park Marina CommitteeThe Save Great Kills Park Marina committee.

Within seven months, The Committee to Save Great Kills Park Marina Community had held debris and boat-launch cleanup days, and had met several times with the NPS staff at all levels. On May 21, 2013, the first boats were launched from the marina since the storm had hit. It was progress. In August 2013, a meeting was held to discuss the Draft General Management Plan of the Gateway National Recreation Area; and Congressman Grimm spoke on behalf of the rebuilding efforts. Within a month, bids were approved and dock and pier segments ordered. The renaissance, although months behind private neighboring marinas, was finally taking place.

Grassroots Victory

As this 2014 boating season comes to a close, 150 of the original 350 slips at Nichols Great Kills Marina have been rebuilt and 100 more are set to be finished by year's end. Cruisers from other states and countries have visited and enjoyed the area completely unaware of the battles fought on their behalf to protect their access and accommodation at Great Kills Marina. This summer, thousands of boaters were able to get out on the water and appreciate the rich legacy that New York Harbor and neighboring bays have to offer.

An effective grassroots movement like this requires three core components — a need for change, a group dedicated to making that change, and a good delivery system to get the word out. Superstorm Sandy had devastated Nichols Great Kills Marina, leaving 350 Staten Island boaters without a place to call home. Two guys with a bone to pick rallied a group of diverse boaters to get behind a common cause, rebuilding something at the heart of their community — their local marina – and they didn't let any storm or government office take that away without a fight.

"We get many calls from folks having problems with losing access to their waterways, or local management of waterways limiting boating," said BoatUS Government Affairs coordinator David Kennedy. "But rarely do they bring all the pieces together like Fred, Marc, and The Committee To Save Great Kills. They were vocal, organized, and kept at it in a professional way — a prime example of how to wage an effective grassroots campaign. They should be really proud of the significant changes they accomplished." 

Nicole Palya Wood is a member of our BoatUS Government Affairs team.

— Published: October/November 2014

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