MADEIRA BEACH — In a reversal of an earlier decision, the City Commission determined that the fitness center at City Hall will not be open to the public, as previously planned. The facility will be used exclusively for workouts by the city’s firefighters and City Hall employees.

The commission decided not to let the public use the center on the advice of Recreation Director Jay Hatch. Hatch told commissioners at their Sept. 24 workshop that opening the fitness center to use beyond city workers and firefighters would not be “financially feasible.” He cited financial and liability insurance concerns.

A fitness center update memorandum prepared by the city showed that allowing the general public to use the gym would cost approximately $40,000 a year for staffing and a $1,200 increase in a liability insurance premium.

“From a financial standpoint, (public use of the center) does not make sense,” Hatch said.

City Manager Robert Daniels said that having the city firefighters use the center for required workouts was “the best use for that room.” Daniels said he is working on getting liability waivers for those who would be exercising at the center.

Fire Chief Derryl O’Neal said “we need room for our firefighters to work out.” He also said some of the exercise equipment was bought with a fire department grant, and needs to remain in fire department use.

The decision not to open the City Hall fitness center to the public is a major reversal from a plan unveiled late last year to reopen the facility, on a trial basis, in January.

The center had been run by a contractor initially, but later was closed to the public and available only to the firefighters and other employees. A proposal by Hatch presented at a commission workshop in November 2018 called for the facility, staffed by existing employees from the Recreation Department, to be once again open to public use.

“We already have the equipment,” Hatch said at the time, “and we want to open to residents and visitors using existing staff.” The plan was for Recreation Department employees to do their normal office work at a desk in the fitness center while handling gym memberships and registrations.

Then-City Manager Jonathan Evans said opening the center for public use “lets the city offer something in a space that is under-utilized.”

The planned reopening never happened. Hatch said he talked with the city’s insurance provider, who said that opening a gym to the public is generally considered a high-risk operation. The insurance company said an employee should be present at all times the fitness center is open to the public.

“We would need somebody there making sure that people were using the equipment properly,” Hatch said, and the employees overseeing the fitness center would need training on the use of the equipment. Also, the equipment requires ongoing maintenance, he said.

Having dedicated, trained staff as opposed to the previous plan of using existing Recreation Department employees increased the expected cost by $40,000 per year.

The commission agreed by consensus not to open the center to the public.

Beach equipment concession contract extended

The commission voted to extend the contract with Saltwater Destination LLC, which provides chairs and other beach accessories at the city’s major beachfront locations.

The agreement was up for renewal and the period was extended from two years to five at the vendor’s request. A memorandum on the subject prepared by Hatch said, “The vendor has indicated that an extension of this nature would allow for them to make additional capital investments in their equipment, keeping their items fresh and presentable to Madeira Beach patrons.”

Under the new agreement, Saltwater Destination will increase its annual payment to the city from $12,000 to $15,000 and continue to pay the same percentage of sales as before, with a minimum of $3,000 to be paid on sales.

Eliminated from the new contract is a requirement for the company to “operate during daylight hours.”

“We won’t define their hours anymore,” Hatch said. “Their hours will be whatever they want.”

Hatch said the level of service and payments from Saltwater Destination “has been through the roof. They are great,” he said.

Most commission members said they were also very pleased with the operation and were in favor of extending the lease under the new agreement.

“They do a great job,” said Commissioner Doug Andrews. “I hear rave reviews about them.”

Added Commissioner Nancy Hodges, “These guys work hard. They’re out here every day and they are doing a great job. Let’s continue with them.”

Commissioner John Douthirt said the previous beach chair provider had paid the city $40,000 a year. “Now, we’re down to $12,000,” he said.

“That’s a big difference in money,” said Douthirt, who recommended the city solicit bids for the job.

Andrews said he was told the previous vendor had “walked out in the middle of the contract.” The city never got all the money the previous vender promised, Andrews said.

Hodges said she saw no need to go out for bids, saying someone else might not be as dependable.

Lauree Tyner, manager of the Snack Shack at Archibald Park, said she had “never heard a complaint” about Saltwater Destination. “People sing their praises,” she said.

“I’ve heard nothing but good things about them also. They do a fabulous job,” said Mayor Maggi Black.

Commissioner Deby Weinstein was absent.

The commission gave Hatch a consensus approval to move forward with the extended contract for Saltwater Destination to continue as the city’s beach equipment provider.

Unlicensed vendors to be confronted

Two other providers of beach chairs operating at locations along the beach have no contract with the city, Hatch said.

Neither company has valid business tax licenses for chair rentals at the majority of their locations. According to a city document, provider Beach Services West has tax licenses at three of its 15 separate locations. Sand Dune Beach Services has licenses at two of the six places where it operates.

Also, the document says, both companies “store their equipment on the beach overnight and frequently do not move their equipment from the rental location.” That violates the city’s “Leave no Trace” ordinance, Hatch said.

Hatch said the city plans to meet with officials of the companies involved “and tell them they need to clean up and be in compliance” with the city requirements.

They need valid business tax licenses at all locations. Beach chairs, if left overnight, will be tagged, and if not removed, taken out, Hatch said.

Daniels said the alleged non-compliance by the beach chair providers is also disrupting sea turtle hatchlings.

“We need to do everything to enforce our (beach chair) ordinance regulations for the safety of our citizens and to protect our natural resources,” Daniels said.

John’s Pass enhancements: Keep it basic

In February, the commission looked at two proposals for improving the John’s Pass Village area. One featured basic upgrades, such as enhanced landscaping, replacing seats with seat walls, up-lighting and new garbage containers. The other took a more extensive “holistic approach,” with new entryways, a public plaza, possibly redrawn traffic patterns, and other less substantial changes.

The plan for John’s Pass was back for discussion at the Sept. 24 workshop. Hodges said she had recently met with merchants from the Village and talked with visitors walking through. They want a more basic approach, she said.

“They just want basic things,” Hodges said, “like a general cleanup and sprucing up, pressure washing of the sidewalks, new plants and receptacles. Keep the rustic look, not a modern design.”

Deb Laramie, acting public works director, said she had also talked with visitors at the Village and some business owners, and heard similar comments.

Laramie said improvements being proposed had “gotten a lot larger, with a lot of things added in,” than what she was hearing the merchants and visitors wanted.

Pelican Lane, a residential street that faces the back of some retail stores, also has issues that need to be addressed, Daniels said. What the city does in John’s Pass Village improvements may have a negative impact on residents there because they would lose a lot of their right-of-way, he said, and that would take away parking.

Daniels said he will put together a town hall/workshop session where John’s Pass merchants, residents, visitors, and city officials can come together, see the improvement proposals and give their feedback.

Finance Director Walter Pierce said there is about $75,000 in the city budget to fund enhancements to John’s Pass Village.