A group of local businessmen hope to resurrect a waterfront restaurant on Heckscher Drive in the Northside that has been closed for more than a decade.
The Palms Fish Camp, which overlooks Clapboard Creek, has stood empty since its closure in 2005, dogged by a messy feud between a developer who planned to reopen the business and the city, which owns the land.
The city settled the lawsuit with the developer last summer and has been looking for new operators. Only group interested: three residents of Heckscher Drive who are ready to see a restaurant open its doors.
“We’ve always talked about who’s going to support it, what’s going to happen,” said Donald “Marshall” Adkison, one of the businessmen who submitted the proposal to operate the restaurant. “There must be something there. The view is amazing.
If the city council approves their proposal to lease the space next month, Adkison said they would get to work immediately. If all goes according to plan, he said the restaurant could be serving cracker-style seafood — think fresh fish baskets, fried Mayport shrimp and silent puppies — within seven months.
The city bought the land in 2002 to create a public boat launch, and it gave a contract to a new restaurant owner after it closed in 2005. The deal with developer Paul Rohan, the forced him to rebuild the restaurant at his own expense, and in exchange for obtaining a lease to operate it.
Rohan started work on the building but struggled to find enough money during the recession. After City gave him a series of time extensions to complete, they terminated their contract with him. Rohan said he invested $700,000 in the project and was 95% complete.
The cancellation sparked a lawsuit that lasted years, until the city settled with Rohan for $125,000.
Adkison and his partners, attorney Marc Hardesty and James McKenzie, owner of the Sanddollar restaurant further east on Heckscher Drive, plan to invest $500,000 to complete the building.
In their proposal to take over the restaurant, the group said they planned to accommodate 150 people. The agreement also asks them to build two public toilets that operate at all hours of the day.
The group would pay the city $1,500 per month to lease the space for the first five years. The amount of the lease would increase by 10% every five years.
Operating a restaurant next to a popular boat launch will be a challenge, Adkison said.
Currently, the parking lot consists of several open spaces with little organization for parking. Adkison said that will change and boaters will have 26 dedicated spaces to park. He said he had observed the ramp parking lot for the past two months and had seen no more than 26 vehicles at a time.
“We will not be able to please 100 boats at the same time. It wasn’t originally designed to do that,” Adkison said. “We want to hear feedback. We believe this will work very well for the volume of ship traffic we have seen.
Adkison said they will ask the state for permission to install new floating docks to allow more customers to access the restaurant by boat. They plan to host live music and several fishing tournaments throughout the year.
The group can’t start work on the restaurant until the council approves their deal, but that hasn’t stopped them from making improvements to the adjacent boat launch.
The boat launch was damaged during Hurricane Matthew after fast-moving high tides ripped out the metal walkway that connects the launch dock to land.
Last weekend, Hardesty and Adkison located the structure with a boat equipped with a sonar sounder. Adkison strapped on her scuba gear, dove into the fast-moving water, and wrapped a chain around the gangway, allowing heavy machinery to pull her out of the water.
Councilman Al Ferraro, who represents the area and is a longtime friend of Adkinson, said the effort saved the city about $20,000. He said he thinks it’s a good sign to come to this area.
“They haven’t taken possession and they’ve already saved taxpayers’ money,” Ferraro said. “That’s the kind of thing we want to see not just in our neighborhood, but across the city.”