A developer and property owner building a high-tech marina, a project worth up to $20 million, have learned being first isn’t easy.
Southwest Florida hospitality developer Todd Carroll didn’t set out, per se, to be one of the first people in the world with a so-called robo-dock, a fully automated dry stack marina. He had nothing against a good forklift or crane.
Carroll just knew the boat storage facility his company had owned in Lee County for a few decades, a steel barn that dates back to the early 1970s, was in dire shape. “It was ready to fall down,” says Carroll of the Gulf Star Marina, next to Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grill on Fishermans Wharf, a tiny sliver of Fort Myers Beach.
It was when Carroll analyzed what to do with the Gulf Star Marina land after the shell was razed that he landed on smart warehousing, also known as automated storage and retrieval technology. Despite its futuristic sound and look, companies like Mercedes and Ikea have used ASAR for years to reduce damage to products and optimize storage. “We knew we needed something new there, and we knew it had to be able to handle bigger boats because that’s the way the market was going,” Carroll says. “It really needed something different than a forklift.”
With that as a backdrop, together with Fort Myers-based GCM Contracting Solutions, Carroll, with Carroll Properties, embarked on what’s now been a decadelong odyssey: to bring ASAR technology both to the marina industry and Southwest Florida. “Nobody has ever done something like this before,” says Dave Brown, a project superintendent with GCM and son of the firm’s founder and CEO, Robert Brown. “A few others have tried and failed.”
The new Gulf Star Marina — expected to open in May — isn’t only first-to-market. At an investment of between $10 million to $20 million, it’s a bold statement by Carroll that boaters will embrace the concept, which also includes several white-glove service features. It’s also an opportunity for GCM Contracting Solutions, with about 35 employees, to add another revenue stream, in building ASAR-based facilities for clients, in marinas and other sectors. Company officials decline to disclose specific annual revenue data.
On the flip side, the project, partially because it’s new and unique, has been a permitting nightmare — costing the developers and owner exponentially in time and money. The facility’s fire suppression system, requiring a four-hour site suppression rating, has been one of several approval parts that have taken longer than anticipated. (Lee County has handled much of the permitting review, with a part going to the Fort Myers Beach Fire District.)
“[Officials] seem afraid of automation,” Carroll says, a sentiment Robert Brown echoes. “A big part of the process has been education and compromise.”
Lee County spokeswoman Betsy Clayton says any regulatory delays are not from “fear of automation or lack of understanding of how the automated system will work.”
“The focus of the permitting process with any large project such as this is to ensure compliance with the Florida Building Code and local codes and project public safety,” Clayton says in an emailed statement. “County staff has been working every step of the way with the contractor and owner. A review of the permitting record and the types of information that have been requested indicate that public safety has been a primary concern during the review process.”
Real estate play
The team behind the project continues to forge ahead despite myriad obstacles, which, in addition to permitting, includes labor challenges and the complexity of the engineering. “The hardest part is every part," Dave Brown says, “because there are no examples” to study of other similar projects.
One reason no one has given in to the challenges: The project can redefine the site for Carroll and lead to a new and larger customer base, dipping into what he says are some 38,000 boaters in Lee County alone. Another reason? Doing it right the first time can lend credibility to GCM as it seeks to expand its ASAR work. “This truly is a disruptive technology in the marina space,” Robert Brown says.
The core of the technology is in the retrieval system, which renders a bulky forklift or costly crane obsolete. The system, along the center aisle of the facility between boats on both sides, runs on a track. It gently hugs the hull of the boat then moves it to a tunnel that goes to the water, where the boat is then placed on a platform lift. In total, it’s a seven-minute process to get the boat from storage onto the water, like a vending machine for a vessel. The system can lift at up to 3.5 mph and drives 11.4 mph.
"Nobody has ever done something like this before. A few others have tried and failed." — David Brown, GCM Contracting Solutions
Not only does the system make it faster to go from storage to water, but it also minimizes damage to boats from diesel soot from forklifts. And because the ASAR system is connected to software, it can keep track of boats in real time, which helps make the marina more efficient.
For a marina owner like Carroll, there are several other benefits. For one, GCM is building the 29,000-square-foot structure using tilt-up concrete construction, which will withstand wind speeds of a Category 5 hurricane. That’s infinitely sturdier than the last iteration of a marina there.
The concrete construction also provides an opportunity to add amenities, from a ship store to a rooftop bar to country club-like dressing rooms and locker rooms. “It will have a lot of features that people aren’t normally accustomed to seeing in a marina,” Carroll says.
GCM, meanwhile, is positioning the ASAR system as a major space-saver for marina owners over forklifts and cranes. It can store boats both deeper and higher in the rack, for one. It can also add up to a 50% increase in cubic rental space, in addition to a 44% reduction of drive aisle through eliminating a forklift.
The new Gulf Star Marina will be able to handle boats up to 40 feet in length, 17 feet in height, 15 feet in width and up to 20,000 pounds, GCM officials say. It will be able to hold 150 larger boats, 87% more than the 80 vessels in the old model.
“Marinas were configured for much smaller boats,” says Max Brown, Dave Brown’s brother and Robert Brown’s son. “You get more boat barn for your buck,” Dave Brown adds. “It’s really a real estate play. Our system gets more boats into the same footprint.”
A third component to the project stems from LTW Intralogistics. The Austrian company combines stacker cranes and conveyor belts with software and data analytics to build ASAR-backed systems for clients from freezer warehouses to timber facilities. The company has built more than 2,300 such systems worldwide, says Robert Brown, who met some LTW officials at a trade show right before the 2008 global recession.
“They wanted to get in the marina industry for a long time, and we just kept kind of crossing paths with them,” the elder Brown says. “But during the recession, nobody wanted anything to do with boats — there was really no way to do this.”
Robert Brown eventually flew to Austria to check out the system — which can cost from $1 million to $3 million to manufacture — in-person from the source. “These guys have a great track record,” Brown says. “They’ve really done some high-profile projects.”
At the same time, Brown and Carroll, friends through their children’s youth sports leagues and the area development community, had been chatting about how the latter could boost business at Gulf Star. The Carroll family, which bought Gulf Star in 1991, has owned and operated a variety of waterfront hotels, marinas and other properties. Carroll had also seen how well GCM did when it built concrete-wall marinas, one in Naples in 2008 and another on Marco Island in 2016.
Brown and Carroll would go on to meet with LTW officials multiple times. They began planning a decade ago then spent at least four years in permitting and construction, leading up to the potential May opening.
Both Carroll and the Browns are ecstatic the opening is finally in view. For GCM, it’s a chance to show customers what ASAR can do, beyond YouTube videos and demos. The company has already been talking to marina owners about similar projects everywhere from New York to Miami and Australia to Oregon.
For Carroll, it’s a chance to get back to what he considers his real work.
“It’s been two years since we ran the old customers out of the barn,” Carroll says, to make way for the new version of Gulf Star Marina. “I’m looking forward to welcoming them back. This is what I enjoy, working with the customers at the marina. This is what I love.”