Hi-Lift moving slowly toward the high life
In what’s shaping up as a big summer for Aqua Marine Partners, CEO Andy Sturner is rushing toward a crossroads in his drive to remake Hi-Lift Marina in Aventura into the showcase of his growing portfolio of luxury marinas.
On June 4, Sturner and his partners cut the ribbon to open AMP’s Hidden Harbour facility in Pompano Beach, the first new conventional dry storage marina built in Broward County in a decade and the sixth in the AMP portfolio. It’s a gleaming $8 million boat warehouse
that moves closer to Sturner’s goal of taking marinas away from being waterfront parking lots and into the world of membership clubs with concierge services and spa facilities.
The new 53-foot-tall building towers above the few wet dock spaces along the 14th Street Canal, just a few minutes from Hillboro Inlet. A massive new forklift is capable of lifting a 43-foot vessel into one of the 384 dry-slips. The building is designed to withstand the winds of a Category 4 hurricane. And AMP plans to add retail, restaurant and office space to the 6.7-acre site along Federal Highway.
But Hidden Harbour is just the opening act in Sturner’s summer plans. Within weeks, he has to make a go/no-go decision on starting to build a bigger and grander marina on the Hi-Lift site at 187th Street in Aventura.
The Aventura site holds a special meaning for Sturner, a serial entrepreneur and lifelong boating enthusiast. He bought Hi-Lift back in 2002 as his first venture into the marina world and AMP still calls Aventura its home base. The acronym AMP, Sturner recalls with a smile, originally stood for Aqua Marine Petroleum back in the days when he envisioned building a marine empire along the scalable model of highway gas stations. That quickly changed when he realized the potential for upgrading the services of a marina into a lifestyle offering with a club membership structure.
A former bankruptcy attorney, Sturner has a background in business development. He was president of corporate and business development for SportsLine.com, the Fort Lauderdale-based publisher of cbs.sportsline.com. Before that, he developed Interactive Services, which he sold to MovieFone in 1994.
Over the past seven years, he has put together a team that includes some big names in boating – like Steve Kinderman, a former CFO of Rybovich Marine Services, a storied builder of sports fishing yachts, and William Slansky, former president and CEO of Land ‘N Sea Distributing – and big names in investing – like Steven Caster and Rudy Prio Touzet, founding partners of Banyan Street Partners real estate investment firm; Jeffrey Citrin, CEO of Square Mile Capital Management; Steve Saiontz, former chairman of United Bank of Florida; and Charlie Wu, managing director of BayNorth Capital and a faculty member at the Harvard Business School.
But perhaps the biggest catch has been adding Christian Rosenberg to AMP’s advisory board and launching the Vertical Yacht Club brand. Rosenberg is a licensed mechanical engineer and general contractor who applied his knowledge to marinas and came up with a revolutionary concept for handling dry-stack storage. His Vertical Yacht Storage System technology replaces the forklift with a bridge crane that can lift 35,000-pound yachts into slips 85 feet in the air. It’s the technology that drives his Port Condo complex in Fort Lauderdale.
And it’s the patented technology AMP has licensed for use in Aventura.
But the road hasn’t been easy. Sturner says he still has bruises from battling the Aventura City Commission for permits to remodel Hi-Lift. He says he was stung by published comments from officials saying it was time to get rid of the ‘ugly boats’ along 187th Street and recalls having to point out to commissioners that boating is such a part of the Aventura lifestyle that the city seal includes a sailboat.
Sturner didn’t get everything he requested. His plans for a 150-foot building were shaved to 90 feet. And there‘s no wiggle room in the 269-slip limit.
While he does have the permits he needs to build a state-of-the-art facility that will reshape the environment for Aventura boating, those permits specify he must start work by August. The capital and lending markets remain tight. Some of the nouveau boaters of the boom days have left the market and recreational spending is down.
But long-term, Sturner knows he has a winner. Boating will always be a part of what draws well-to-do people to Florida and hurricanes will always be part of Florida’s climate. At the intersection lies AMP’s concept of luxury marinas.
Sturner acknowledges he could probably go back to the city and reopen the issue in light of the new economic realities. He’s seen others do it. But he’s not eager to go through that pain again and open up what he fears might be a regulatory can of worms. So, within the next few weeks, he’s planning to start work, albeit at a snail’s pace and on projects that could serve either the current or future facility. He also is exploring whether his project would qualify for a state-mandated two-year extension on certain permits because of the economy.
It’s a prudent strategy that fits the economic times. But it’s not one that plays to Sturner’s instincts for business development.
His grand plan involves a web of services that stretch from the building, marketing and brokering of ‘rackominiums’ and ‘dockominiums’ to developing and managing membership yacht clubs that provide a full-range of services and experiences. There will be concierge and business services; full catering services; an owners lounge with plasma TVs; showers and changing rooms with lockers; Internet access; kids playroom; gourmet café and coffee bar. Members would have reciprocal privileges at all AMP sites. Membership comes with the slip without any upfront fees but various levels of upgraded services are available.
In a world where the diminishing supply of wet slips are routinely selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars -- Sturner says one local slip traded hands recently for $1.4 million – he’s eager to get the new Hi-Lift in operation.
But for this summer at least, he’ll be content with incremental gains.
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