Tourism leaders seek delay in beach dredging

The cheapest price isn’t the best deal on the $15 million dredging project to renourish Navarre Beach this spring, area tourism leaders assert.

They estimate the economic damage to the area’s leisure industry at $10 million, far more than Santa Rosa County Commissioners will save by recently accepting the lowest bid from Weeks Marine Inc., and not scheduling the 190-day beach restoration for the late fall and winter.

In an email to commissioners on Tuesday, the volunteer Tourism Development Council’s South End Committee cited the likelihood of layoffs of hospitality workers and a ripple effect that will hit restaurants, grocery stores, golf courses and entertainment establishments.

Nevertheless, county officials reasoned that the beach restoration is necessary for the future of tourism here and that the Weeks Marine bid promises to finish in half the time of its engineering competitors, thus shortening the presence of heavy equipment and pipe within the sight of vacationers.

District 5 Commissioner Lane Lynchard told the Navarre Press he backs the decision to start dredging in the spring. “We have a small stretch of beach here in Santa Rosa County that is critically eroded. The risk is we have a storm event that causes further erosion…and at that point the price tag could go up dramatically.”

Director of Tourism Julie Morgan said that while she’s open to further discussion about the timing of dredging and moving new sand onto the shore, “There’s really no perfect time for this. And we all know it has to be done.”


The case for delay

“We foresee at least a 50 percent decrease in business this summer as a result of this planned beach restoration,” the tourism committee wrote to commissioners. The email urged the board “to do everything possible to delay restoration until after the summer season to ensure that Navarre’s main economic industry (tourism) is protected.”

Laurie Gallup, a TDC member who is also owner of Navarre Properties, a vacation lodging company, said, “It is very shocking to me. We are going to be in big trouble money-wise. All this money that everyone has been excited about that has been pouring in won’t be pouring in when you have beach restoration going on in the middle of your season.

Some county officials have insisted that the dredging will only close relatively small sections of the beach from day to day.

But Gallup said the last major beach restoration in 2007 was offensive to tourists. “And this whole thing about them only shutting down part of the beach at a time is not true. And the heavy equipment makes heavy equipment noises all day with the beep beep beep beep. I’m telling you we are in big trouble.”

Liz Horton, a marketing manager for Wyndham Hotels Resort Quest in Navarre Beach, said her company may feel compelled to warn tourists about the scheduled work. “The worse thing is for them to come and not know. So we are basically having to tell them to not come.”


Questions about the deal

Even though the winning bid to replenish beach sand on about 4 miles of Santa Rosa coastline is only $2 million less than the cost of Weeks Marine’s current project for roughly 8 miles of Pensacola Beach, Assistant County Engineer Michael Schmidt said other offers were less attractive.

Thus the Board of County Commissioners had little choice. Schmidt explained: “We open the bids at a certain time … a letter of recommendation is written by our consultant Coastal Tech, and the BOCC makes the final choice.”

There’s no opportunity to haggle at that point, Schmidt said: “If you don’t like the price, don’t accept it.”

Further, the return of Weeks Marine to Navarre Beach has raised environmental concerns. A Weeks Marine attorney said the company will be closely following permitting rules in an effort to avoid the accidental killing of sea turtles. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers temporarily halted the company’s dredging at Navarre Beach in 2006 after five turtles died because of the work.

Weeks won the Navarre Beach job despite its turtle track record in 2006 with a $14.9 million bid for 190 days of work, compared with up to $25.9 million and 375 days to completion by other companies.

Yet a review of the three bidding finalists shows that Weeks’ estimate of its “mobilization” costs – the expenses for moving and assembling dredging gear – is about $3 million. The company has already moved dredging equipment from its Louisiana facility to Pensacola Beach, where the dredging that began in November is scheduled to be completed by early April.

Weeks Marine’s bid for the Pensacola Beach dredging estimated its mobilization costs at $3.5 million for that project.

Although the two dredging efforts are only 20 miles or so apart, it isn’t possible to save costs by moving the Pensacola Beach equipment to Navarre Beach, according to Patrick Whelan, general counsel for New Jersey-based Weeks.

“We’re mobilizing dredges that are currently in Delaware—different types of dredges–and also mobilizing thousands of feet of pipe and land-based equipment,” Whelan said.

He explained that Weeks isn’t using the same equipment in Navarre Beach that it is at Pensacola Beach. “So it’s not as simple as us just moving a couple of vessels from an adjacent project.”


Saving sea turtles

State and federal environmental agencies vow to monitor Weeks Marine’s work to minimize the danger to sea turtles, especially during their nesting season, which starts in May. In 2006, Weeks Marine accidently killed three turtles that were sucked into its dredging pumps and two others that died in the nets of trawlers.

“Even one dead sea turtle costs thousands of hatchlings,” said Christian Wagley, a marine biologist in Pensacola who is a member of Escambia County’s advisory team on allocating funds from the BP oil spill settlement.

“Very few sea turtles survive to maturity. Those that do often produce thousands of eggs over their lifetimes,” Wagley explained. “So losing one means losing thousands.”

He cautioned that government environmental officials should hold Weeks to a higher standard of sea turtle protection than the company achieved in 2006.

The company’s bid included $75,000 for permit compliance, compared with $120,000 and $290,000 by the other two finalists competing for the contract.

Asked about Weeks Marine’s plans for protecting turtles next spring, Whelan said he isn’t yet sure of the exact measures planned. “It’s an issue that I know we deal with in other areas and it’s an issue I know is of great concern to us. Each project has different specifications on how we deal with the turtle situation. We also have the applicable permits and we certainly will do whatever is in the specifications and whatever is in the permit requirements for this project to minimize the impact on any turtles.”


The shell game

Tourism officials are trying to look on the bright side of the dredging’s impact, when sections of the beach are closed due to the work and heavy equipment invades the summer’s splendor along the shore.

Tourism Director Julie Morgan said in December that her agency plans a campaign highlighting the educational possibilities of the restoration project.

“We’re going to use this as a positive, and we’re going to tie in an educational value to watch this happen if you’ve never seen something like this,” Morgan said. “It’s educational, plus there’s going to be an enormous amount of seashells that normally wouldn’t be there.”

But Wagley said that most of the shells pumped to the beach from offshore would be broken and would illustrate environmental damage. “Those shells came from communities of living organisms that are destroyed by dredging.”

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