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Rebirth for an early ‘destination’ marina

Marinas have life cycles, with ups and downs and, sometimes, an inglorious end. Some tired old facilities just fade away and are torn down, replaced by hotels, condo complexes and the like. Others get a second chance.

Essex Island Marina was founded in 1955 on a 13.2-acre island on the lower Connecticut River about 5 miles north of Long Island Sound. Louis Schieferdecker, the son of a German immigrant, bought the island and started a modest boatyard with a few slips. He went on to grow the business into a marina known for its amenities and services. His son, Wally, owned the family-run marina at the time of the sale.

A launch operated by the marina shuttles customers to and from the mainland. One of the marina’s greatest assets is open space, including a grassy lawn, a sandy beach and picnic areas. The island setting, along with an in-ground swimming pool that was added in 1969, made it one of the original “destination” marinas.

“They were a resort marina when the rest of us were dirty old boatyards,” says Doug Domenie, who was named general manager of the marina when the Brewer Yacht Yard Group made the winning bid of $3.15 million for the 125-slip marina at a public auction in August. Essex Island Marina sits adjacent to the Brewer Dauntless Shipyard & Marina, which Domenie also manages.

“Back in the 1980s and into the ’90s, you had to reserve a slip a year in advance,” he recalls.

More recently, there have been dozens of open slips at Essex Island Marina, and the transient cruisers from New York, Rhode Island and beyond had begun passing on the facility and its appealing scenery.

The newly named Brewer Essex Island Marina is the 24th in the Brewer Yacht Yards chain, which stretches from Maine to Maryland. Brewer yards are known as destination marinas, with ample amenities, first-class facilities and docks, manicured landscaping and professional staff from top to bottom.

Jack Brewer, who founded the company in 1964, has built his empire by purchasing marinas with potential and turning them into “Brewer yards.”

Now the group is plotting a path to achieve that with the Essex Island facility.

The first step came in the form of an early October open house offering free weekend tie-ups. The late-season event drew 61 transient boats on a rainy Saturday. A mix of existing slip holders, Brewer customers and non-customers took advantage of the weekend deal, which included live music and light fare.

The only requirement was that guests complete a survey focusing on what they liked or didn’t like about the facility, what improvements/additions they would like to see and what surrounding activities, entertainment and businesses interest them.

“We are formulating our preliminary plans to upgrade the infrastructure, to make it safe and efficient, and are looking forward to hearing from our customers as to what they want so that we can deliver the best customer experience,” says Rives Potts, president of the Brewer Yacht Yard Group. “We are focused on the ideas we are receiving, the history and abundance of great memories and the revival we saw [that] weekend. So many folks said it was like it used to be with a full house.”

Potts expects that during the next few months the Brewer team will revisit the vision and develop a better concept of what can work and what makes sense.

“As to ideas we have received about rooms on the island, conferences and those kinds of things, we need more information as to what we can do, per regulations and the infrastructure,” Potts says. “But most importantly, we want to make sure that what we do will be very respectful of the culture of the island and the Essex community. Certainly, offerings such as stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, small dinghies to sail and row and other water activities are in the mix. And everyone this weekend said to ‘go simpler, not more high-tech.’ In other words, they want that peaceful, relaxed vibe of an island — including a tiki bar. But they want it ‘Brewer-ized,’ with landscaping, upgraded facilities, docks and decks.”

Potts envisions Essex Island Marina as again a destination that will attract visiting boaters to Essex and provide a quiet and fun family atmosphere.

“With our customers’ input, we are planning on doing just that,” he says.

Domenie says he expects to take the 2015 season to get a good feel for the operation and then fine-tune the improvement plan.

“Initially there’s going to be some major work this winter, repairing or replacing fixed docks and bulkheads, replacing floating docks, upgrading the electrical system and replacing the electrical pedestals,” he says.

Some reorganizing and resizing of slips to accommodate bigger boats is likely if the market calls for that, and one of the winter jobs will be cleaning up the shoreline so the marina will get its beach back next summer.

Bigger decisions remain, such as whether the quaint food shack named Marley’s Café will continue as a character eatery or give way to something more upscale.

“We also plan to clean up the debris and clutter on the north end of the island, and there’s a great possibility we’ll be adding walking trails, and maybe some exercise stations or picnic areas there,” Domenie says. “That section has been underutilized.”

The key, as with any successful business, he says, is that the redevelopment has to make economic sense.

“Although Brewer Yacht Yards is prepared to make investments in the property, we want to get it to a place where it’s generating enough income to pay for the improvements,” Domenie says. “The real goal here is to build it so they will come. We have to give them a reason to make them want to come five miles up the river to stay here.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue.



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