Valley Gem owner sets sights on Marietta docks

MARIETTA – The days may be numbered for the Muskingum River Boat Docks whose owners have apparently been outbid for a lease on the city-owned dock space by the owner of the neighboring Valley Gem Sternwheeler excursion business.

“At the end of the day it’s just the dollars – it comes down to who had the highest bid as both parties conformed to the specifications in our bid package,” Marietta Councilman Mike McCauley, D-2nd Ward, said during a lands, buildings and parks committee meeting Tuesday.

Dan and Shana Woodford have operated the Muskingum River Boat Docks, just south of the Washington Street Bridge, since 2009 when they purchased the facilities from Jim Wiblin, who had owned the docks for 40 years.

Earlier this year Marietta City Council advertised for bids on a 10-year lease for the approximately 328 feet of riverbank where the Muskingum River docks are located.

When the bids were opened Feb. 14, the Woodfords had bid $3,002 a year for the lease, but Valley Gem owner J.J. Sands had submitted a total bid of $3,141.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, city law director Paul Bertram III confirmed that Sands and the Woodfords had met the bid specifications that included using the space exclusively for private docking of boats less than 90-feet long and prohibiting commercial vessels from using the docks.

“Both bids were in compliance with our specifications, and the documents were submitted properly and on time,” Bertram said. “The bid opening has been done, and the safety service director has made a recommendation. It’s now up to council to accept that recommendation or award the bid to the other party, or to reject the bids altogether.”

City safety-service director Jonathan Hupp recommended last week that council accept Sands’ bid.

Councilman Michael Mullen, I-at large, agreed with McCauley.

“I think you have two compliant bids, and a high bidder,” he said.

But committee chairman Harley Noland, D-at large, expressed concern that plans submitted with the Sands bid showed the Valley Gem would have to make use of river space west of the docks to connect with the Miss Lily barge that provides additional room for passengers during larger excursions.

Sands said coupling of the two boats would take about 45 minutes, and would only be necessary about eight times a year.

“But my concern is that our specifications say those docks are not to be used for any commercial vessels, whether they’re in that space for 45 minutes or any amount of time,” Noland said. “So my proposal would be not to accept the Valley Gem bid.”

Council president Walt Brothers said Noland shouldn’t dismiss Sands’ bid on those terms.

“They’re just maneuvering those vessels out on the river – not docking them there,” he said.

But Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, agreed with Noland.

“The specs say no commercial vessels permitted,” he said. “If the Valley Gem and Miss Lily are connected there, it would be a violation of the use of this dock space. So I couldn’t be supportive.”

Shana Woodford told the committee Tuesday that Hupp had sent a letter stating the reasons he would not recommend their bid to council. She said the letter included remarks about the docks having to be brought up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, improved lighting and electrical service, and other requirements that were not part of the bid specifications.

“At the end of his letter Mr. Hupp asked if we would be interested in selling the docks to Mr. Sands,” she said. “I said absolutely not. Our bid may not be as shiny as Mr. Sands’ bid, but we meet the specifications set forth in the bid documents, and our docks have served boaters of the Ohio Valley for many years now.”

Woodford noted that the docks have been marine licensed every year and electricity and other improvements have been properly permitted and done by certified workers.

Councilman Roger Kalter, D-1st Ward, said he would like to see some arrangement worked out to the satisfaction of both parties, suggesting the possibility of allowing docking facilities to be built along the city-owned riverbank where the Becky Thatcher showboat was once moored behind the National Guard Armory.

And Councilman Denver Abicht, D-at large, said he had been given a tour of the Muskingum River Boat Docks by Dan Woodford.

“I thought they were sound and I see no problem there,” Abicht said, adding that he would be in agreement with Vukovic and Noland.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Sands gave a presentation on docking facilities he plans to install if awarded the lease for the city space.

“I’m excited about this new project we would call the Washington Street Marina Division,” he said. “This would be docking space solely intended for private boaters – not for commercial use.”

The plans call for installation of 300 feet of steel boat docks with a 55-foot ADA-compliant gangway, a fire pump, four new lighting pedestals, and a sewer pump for boaters to pump into the city sewage system.

Councilman Steve Thomas, D-3rd Ward, an advocate for handicapped accessibility, said he liked the Sands plan, but did not commit to voting for one bid or the other.

“I’m all for ADA compliance, so Mr. Sands’ idea hits home with me,” he said. “Maybe the Woodfords could install ADA-compliant docks. It’s not fair for people with disabilities to not have access to area boat docks. But I’m on the rail right now as far as a final decision.”

Legislation to approve the recommendation for Sands to be awarded the dock space bid will be introduced during next week’s regular council session at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the community building at Lookout Park.