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STONE HARBOR - On multiple occasions, Stone Harbor Mayor Judith Davies-Dunhour has lamented the unenviable position of being caught in the middle with preserving borough history and character. At the Stone Harbor Borough Council meeting Sept. 3, she reiterated the sentiment.

“We are sometimes criticized if we do and criticized if we don’t,” Davies-Dunhour said. Her reference was to those among the residents who want the borough to do more to preserve elements of the town that contribute to its special character, and those who feel the borough should not become a landlord for a private business.

At issue is the future of Smuggler’s Cove. A landmark for decades, the business at 81st Street and the bay is often billed as a fishing headquarters, a bait and tackle, and a marine supply store with fuel docks.

Online reviews praise the friendly staff, and the willingness of the staff to instruct a newcomer while supporting experienced anglers.

Located in one of the borough’s oldest structures, Smuggler’s Cove, named back in 1973, is in danger of being lost. The labor of love with which the owners have run the business is coming to an end. The question is what will happen to the property.

Council has been exploring a potential municipal purchase of the business for months, often in closed sessions since real estate transactions are seldom discussed publically until completed.

The mayor and council have heard from both sides. In the recent council meeting, officials said they wanted to begin a public process to determine the level of public support or opposition to any municipal investment in the property.

“We can't make any decision without seeking a number of ways to hear from the public,” Davies-Dunhour said.

During the Sept. 3 meeting, council appeared split on the issue.

Charles Krafczek reminded council that more was at stake than a historic structure. “We are a water community,” he said, “and that means we must ensure the access and services required in a water community.”

Raymond Parzych urged consideration of the issue by calling council’s attention to the fact that “when something like this is gone, there is no getting it back. There will never be another Smuggler’s Cove.”

Mantura Gallagher argued that the borough may soon be facing many expensive demands related to its core functions regarding flood mitigation and beach restoration. She urged that council not be too quick to invest $5 to $7 million of bond debt in preventing what may be a failing business from falling to more profitable development.

In earlier debates, Frank Dallahan, before he was appointed to the governing body, spoke out against investment by the borough, calling it a “crazy idea.”

Council was reminded that the property owner’s association had conducted a survey on the issue with a majority of the respondents against any borough action.

Davies-Dunhour recalled that the survey results had called for more information and that the survey took place when the projected cost was less well understood and projected higher.

Council President Joselyn Rich called for council to take action, arguing that the issue has been debated for months.

Two other issues are driving the debate.

The level of investment that will be needed after any purchase of the property could be significant, with some public speakers raising doubts about the need for all of the potential rehabilitation noted in a report by the borough engineer. Others argue that the risks involved in taking on liability for the fuel tanks are significant.

A second concern is how close the borough will be to the oversight of business operations if the property was borough-owned. Davies-Dunhour promised that borough employees would not be involved in running the business. She envisions a concept in which an individual or company signs a master lease for the property and is solely responsible for its operation.

While some make the point that the borough’s purpose would not be served if any new business on the site did not preserve the bait shop and gas docks, some who concede the need for the existing functions expressed hope that the location could become one that served breakfast or lunch, adding to its value as a unique stop for boaters.

For Parzych, the Cove is “part of what makes Stone Harbor what it is.” Speaking to council members he said, “We have a chance to save it.”

Dallahan expressed concern about the loss of history to demolition, but he also voiced his belief that Smuggler’s Cove presented “significant risk” as an investment, noting that there is no reason “to believe someone can come in and run it profitably.”

With the mayor calling for more public input and the council president asking for deadline when the governing body will bring the issue to a vote, one can see that the issue will command more attention.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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