By taking bids on the management of North Point Marina, the largest on the Great Lakes, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources hopes it can upgrade the facility, which has deteriorated over the past several years to where it's less than half full.
Boaters have seen a lack of landscaping and general repairs.
"It's just getting worse," said Frank Bartos, 56, of Gurnee, who has rented a slip at the marina in Winthrop Harbor for four years. "When you talk to people who have been here 10 years, they tell you about how nice it used to be. It's been a gradual decline and the gradual decline has affected the number of boaters," with many going to Kenosha, Wis.
Chris Young, IDNR spokesman, said the agency frequently contracts with concessionaires to manage business on state properties, such as the conference center, hotel and restaurant at Adeline Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park, just south of the marina in Zion.
"The harbor master at North Point Marina is retiring, and the skill set required to manage the facility is very specific. This is why IDNR is seeking a concessionaire to manage and upgrade the site," Young said. The marina is still one of the most visited sites in the IDNR system, drawing 848,352 visits from March 2015 to March 2016.
The marina opened in 1989 on 77 acres and has 21 docks and 1,477 floating slips that range in size from 30 to 60 feet. Prices range from $2,120 annually for a 30-foot slip to $5,080 annually for a 60-foot slip and some larger boats can be accommodated, according to the public bidding document at the IDNR website.
Slipholders have dock lockers, electricity, cable, free Wi-Fi, restricted parking and private bathhouses. There is 24-hour security seven days a week and day boat users can use a 10-lane free public launch with trailer parking. Other amenities include sand volleyball courts, a beach, a fish cleaning station, fishing pier, and several picnic areas.
Skipper Buds, who leases from the state, offers winter boat storage and other services, including the Tropics Restaurant with a deck and area for live music. Skipper Buds is required to offer a restaurant as part of its lease, Young said.
The bidding document mentions that there is a weekend shuttle to bring boaters into neighboring Winthrop Harbor, Zion and Beach Park, but that ended last year, according to John St. Pierre, commodore of the Winthrop Harbor Yacht Club, based at the marina.
"We used to use that a lot to go into town," said St. Pierre, of Algonquin.
Deterioration at the marina began with the recession which caused a steady decline in boat slip rentals, but they didn't recover even though the economy stabilized, St. Pierre said. Young could not provide the numbers for rentals in the last decade, but St. Pierre estimates it's somewhere around 40 percent.
"As conditions deteriorated, the people started moving," he said, which led to a downward cycle with less money for maintenance and services that would attract boaters.
He finds some fault with state government, which he said had both a Democratic and Republican governor sweep hundreds of thousands from the marina account. The main office was engineered and built to last just over 20 years and it has been 27 years, plus some ceilings in the meeting room have been damaged by water and not repaired, St. Pierre said.
"You have to remember that some of the rental money goes to pay off the bonds that were used to build the marina," he said, which are interest free, but there is about $8 million left to pay off. "So it's understandable the state is having problems, but it's not excusable for people paying $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 per year," he said.
Some 100 slipholders left reluctantly, St. Pierre said, and might be willing to pay slightly more to return if they saw improvements.
The idea of privatization doesn't scare Bartos, as long as rates aren't raised suddenly or all slip service become a la carte instead of a flat fee.
"I can't see it hurting anything, with the serious lack of maintenance you wonder how it could get any worse," he said. "It would be foolish to try and raise the rates all at once. They have to stay competitive.
"It's going to take some deep pockets to turn this place around," said Bartos. "This place is such a gem. You spend a lot of money to be here, and don't get me wrong, we love it here. We do this because we don't travel, but you hope you get what you are paying for."
State Rep. Sheri Jesiel, R-Winthrop Harbor, started a Lakefront Economic Development Group to bring local officials together to work on such things as connecting bike paths that could help all communities. And they support privatization of the marina, she said..
"This is significant," Jesiel said of the bidding process. "It's been pretty run down."
The group also hopes that two lots – one just under an acre and the other five acres -- could be developed by a new marina manager.
The harbor anchors an area surrounding the entrance at Sheridan Road and 7th Street, with two nautically-themed plazas, a Time Out sports bar and grill with a dozen outdoor sidewalk tables, a book store, and planters and large pier posts wrapped in huge rope.
Dhara Patel, 28, runs the Harbor Food and Liquor in Harbor Point Plaza and has seen a drop-off in business.
"The thing is, for many years business was really good; this year the business is not so good," she said. "They used to have festivals every weekend and there were fireworks, small boat shows and little concerts." Plus, there were more maina employees to visit the store.
"It would be great if someone took care of it like it used to be. It would be a miracle," said Patel. "If they privatize, it they could bring more business, new ideas, and they will want to make money. It could be good for all the businesses in town."