BRADENTON – Following a long and emotional meeting, Manatee County Commissioners last week awarded the Manatee Beach concession contract to United Park Services of Tampa.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity to take over the concession,” said Alan Kahana, president of UPS. “We’re sure we’ll do a good job and earn the respect of the community.
“We intend to keep the character of the concession the same and continue with the music and all you can eat specials. We intend to beautify the facility and work with the city and the Chamber to do what’s best for the county and the facility.”
The selection process
The meeting began with Deputy County Attorney Robert Eschenfelder explaining the process that led up to the decision by a committee of three to recommend UPS over the current concessionaire, Café on the Beach. He pointed out that while Dee and Gene Schaefer had the concession contract since the 1990s, they subcontracted it to Tom Vayias and John Menihtas, of Café on the Beach, in 2004 for $650,000.
Cindy Turner director of the county’s parks and recreation department and a committee member, said the committee spent hours in interviews with representatives of the four companies chosen as finalists, researched their finances and history and did site visits on locations that they operate.
“We asked that several key elements be included in the proposals – to maintain the traditional feel of a coastal community, community involvement, commitment to customer service and quality food and beverages and environmental sustainability,” Turner explained.
“United Park Services has a well thought out business plan that offers Manatee County and all of its citizens the highest and best use of Manatee Beach concession. They offered us the highest compensation package.”
Cheers for Café
More than 25 residents, including several employees of the Cafe, spoke in favor of keeping it as the concessionaire, pointing out that the owners have done an excellent job managing the facility and the food is good and reasonably priced. They also said they do not want change.
Holmes Beach Commissioner David Zaccagnino said more than 1,800 people signed petitions to keep the Café and noted, “The biggest complaint I hear is that the government doesn’t listen.”
Café attorney Stavros Tingrides said the Café operators were not given the same opportunity to negotiate as the owners of UPS.
UPS’ initial offer was an annual base payment of $180,000, 15 percent of the total gross sales of alcoholic beverages, a percentage of other sales up to $1,000,000 and a percentage of other sales over $1,000,000. Café’s offer was an annual fee of $326,400 plus a percentage of the total gross sales of alcoholic beverages. UPS’ negotiated offer was $342,000 annually plus 4 percent of gross sales over $2.5 million.
“Please don’t turn this area into a honky tonk situation,” Katie Pierola implored. "We didn’t save our beaches to do this.”
Barbara Hines submitted photos she said showed unsanitary conditions at Ft. De Soto and claimed, “I wouldn’t eat there if it was free.”
“I feel very humble because of the outpouring of obvious love from many of our customers,” Gene Schaefer said. “We’ve tried to represent the county in the best possible way.
“We thought you knew what we were doing and liked what we were doing. We hope you’ll give us consideration in this contract.’
UPS supporters speak
Bob Browning, a 20-year supervisor of the Pinellas County Recreation Department who retired last year, spoke highly of UPS. He said the company took over the facility at Ft. De Soto on a July 4 weekend and “jumped in and made the transition without skipping a beat and made good on all their promises to improve the facility and the services that they would provide.”
He said they purchased new kayaks and bicycles, added rentals of fishing gear and fire rings for campers, worked closely with the county, retained previous employees, maintained the facility and are very cooperative.
Another speaker said UPS has greatly improved the facility at Ft. De Soto and that it’s very family friendly, and an employee vouched for the company.
“I visited Ft. De Soto before and after UPS took over and they made huge improvements,” restaurant consultant Perry Thomas said. “I haven’t seen a hotel out there, Disney things dancing around or a honky tonk.”
Kahana said they plan to add an ice cream parlor and coffee shop to the dining area with umbrella tables outside, healthy options to the menu, WiFi service and accept credit cards.
“I want to assure the commission that we will be good stewards of the Manatee Beach concession and abide by the conditions of the contract,” Kahana stressed.
“We’ll maintain an open door policy relative to the use of the facility by local civic organizations. We will support local artists and provide fundraising opportunities.”
Robert Smith, of Green Latitude Consulting, said his company works with business to improve their efficiencies and recycling, and he will work with UPS to help reduce their impact on the community.
“I feel I’m qualified to know the character of the Island and Holmes Beach,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore declared. “People like the old Florida, family oriented, funky look. It’s my responsibility to vote for the most responsive bidder and that’s Café on the Beach.”
She made the motion to deny staff’s recommendation and negotiate with the owners of the Cafe. Commissioner John Chappie seconded it.
Commissioner Joe McClash questioned why a local vendor was not given preference, why there were no Island representatives on the selection committee and why the committee did not negotiate with the Café.
“We market the uniqueness of the Island, and I’m not ready to break the system that’s working today,” McClash pointed out.
“You can’t buy soul. People that come here say this is something unique. Don’t screw it up. Why would you take that risk?”
Commissioner Ron Getman said it’s a business decision and “if they remove emotion, UPS is the best choice,” but did admit he had mixed emotions.
“This is about the way of life, the character, the uniqueness of Anna Maria Island and what we have here in Manatee County,” Chappie declared. “The people at the Café provide the quality service that we want out there and we want that to continue.”
Commission Chair Donna Hayes said if she does not choose the best financial offer she has let down the taxpayers and noted, “We are here to make responsible business decisions. This is a no-brainer.”
Commissioner Gwen Brown made no comment, and Commissioner Larry Bustle said he would vote against the motion.
Bustle asked about insinuations that the process was tainted.
“From a procurement law standpoint, the RFP process is not black and white like you’re going to buy widgets and you pick the lowest price,” Deputy County Attorney Robert Eschenfelder explained. “It would be highly uncommon not to have a contract that has terms and conditions that do not mirror what was put in the RFP.”
As an example, he pointed to the kayak and bicycle rentals in the original proposal that were removed after discussions with Holmes Beach officials.
“A lawful process was followed,” he continued. “There was noting about that RFP and the evaluation process that occurred that was inconsistent with purchasing law and policy.”
Rob Cuthbert, county purchasing division manager concurred and noted, “We followed policy.”
Whitmore called the question, and the motion was denied 4/3.
Getman made a motion to adopt the agreement with UPS, and Bustle seconded it. The motion was approved 4/3. The company will take over operations at Manatee Beach on July 21.
After the vote, Gene Schaefer said, “So we move on to the next venture. Business is business; sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”