By Jim Hayden
Saugatuck is testing the waters of possibly purchasing Tower Marine in Douglas, deciding Monday to meet with the private marina owner.
“The fate of Tower Marine is one of the most strategic issues facing Saugatuck, Douglas and the entire area,” said councilman Ken Trester. “It’s incumbent on us to do whatever we can to facilitate its future.”
Mayor Chris Peterson, Trester, councilwoman Jane Verplank and city manager Kirk Harrier planned to meet with marina owner R.J. Peterson on Tuesday to express the city’s interest. The city will ask the 90-year-old business owner to set up an escrow account to cover costs of a consultant. No amount was discussed Monday night.
If R.J. Peterson refuses to set up the account, the city will stop discussions, the mayor said.
In a letter dated Jan. 12, R.J. and his son Matt Peterson (no relation to the mayor) proposed exploring ways to transfer the marina’s “waterfront properties” to Saugatuck.
Harrier asked the city’s attorney to look over the correspondence. Jeffrey Sluggett of Bloom Sluggett Morgan responded with a letter to the council listing concerns, including if the city has the state and local authority to purchase property outside its boundaries, how the purchase would be financed and the impact on taxes in Douglas.
“The potential acquisition of a commercial marina operation for public purposes is a complex matter and would involve a number of factors that, practically, would need further review,” Sluggett wrote to the council.
Some councilmembers said they wanted more information.
“I’m willing to go to the next step, cautiously, eyes wide open,” said councilman Mark Bekken.
“We can’t make a decision until we have the facts,” said councilman Jeff Spangler.
Councilman Barry Johnson agreed the issue should be looked into.
Verplank did not openly support or oppose investigating a purchase, saying council should follow the attorney’s suggestions. She wondered how the city would pay for the 500-slip marina across the Kalamazoo River in another community.
Councilman Bill Hess did not support investigating a possible purchase. “I’m not sure it’s something our citizens are interested in,” he said.
The disagreement led to a quick, terse exchange between council members who usually maintain a measured demeanor at meetings.
“Why is Saugatuck buying something in Douglas?” Hess asked.
“Why are we not?” replied the mayor.
“And what are we buying it with?” added Verplank.
R.J. Peterson and the City of Douglas have discussed the latter’s possible purchase of the marina for several years but have not been able to come to an agreement. Douglas is looking at other sites for a municipal marina on the Kalamazoo River.
R.J. Peterson, often a vocal critic of municipal leaders, has been involved in several lawsuits with area governments and led a drive to consolidate Saugatuck and Douglas that often turned bitter. The issue ended when residents in both cities voted in 2013 to discontinue pursuing consolidation studies.
“Everybody has strong feelings one way or the other on this,” said Mayor Peterson.