Norfolk boat yard set adrift

Virginian-Pilot/December 10, 2004
By Allison Connolly

Norfolk -- Kathy and Rob Powell know people in this town by their boats.

Whether bankers or blue-collar workers, boaters from all walks of life have brought their power boats or sail boats to the Powells' Norfolk Boat Works for maintenance.

The yard has a do-it-yourself motto, so it's not uncommon to see a businessman arrive at the Southampton Avenue yard on his lunch break, cast off his suit jacket, roll up his sleeves and start sanding, Kathy Powell said. That spirit has set the yard apart from other repairers in the area, her husband, Rob, said.

"One of the most beautiful things I've seen in this yard is a boat will come in and an entire family will work on it," he said.

After nine years, it all comes to an end Dec. 31, when the Powells have to vacate the property.

Their landlord canceled their lease to keep the land open for possible commercial development.

The Powells say it's a sign of the times around Norfolk as waterfront industry is being replaced by high-end condominiums.

"We thought we were pretty well set for the next five or six years, and we invested in that vein," said Rob Powell. "And it all fell apart."

The Powells' landlord is True World Group in Little Ferry, N.J., the corporate arm of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon that owns fisheries, restaurants and boat builders among its vast real estate holdings.

Tadashi "Ted" Igarashi, director of general affairs for the company, said ending the Powells' lease was not personal, it was simply a business decision.

"We are aware that there is development and things happening there," Igarashi said. "It's easier for us to make a decision when the property is vacant."

In 2000, the parties signed a 10-year lease with a clause that said either could terminate the contract at any time without reason.

In March, the Powells were given nine months' notice by the company - by fax - that it was ending the lease.

Since then, the Powells said, they have tried to find another piece of property on the water in Hampton Roads, but nothing fits their needs. They say they tried to get the city to negotiate with True World Group on their behalf and to help them find a new location in Norfolk. But they feel the city's efforts fell short.

"Impending development is going to force all our boat yards off the waterfront, especially in the city of Norfolk," Rob Powell said. Leases on nearby Front Street, for example, were not renewed and a developer has plans to build waterfront condos for retirees there. Other residential, office and retail development is expected to follow.

Randi Ferraro, real estate development manager for Norfolk, said the city tried to help the Powells as much it could, but officials were limited by the fact that the city doesn't own the property.

"The city's heritage is built on shipping and shipping-related industry," she said. "I don't agree that the city isn't interested in this business."

But Ferraro doesn't deny that property values along the waterfront are going up, and owners know it.

"This is the way the marketplace is playing out in Norfolk," she said.

The Norfolk Boat Works property is still zoned industrial and there are no proposals on the table to change it, she said. But if there is one, the city would have to consider it.

Advertising executive Ron Primm, a loyal customer of Norfolk Boat Works, said it will be hard to find the same hands-on service nearby. He said the city should do more to keep business owners like the Powells here. "You can't always measure these things in dollars and cents," he said.

The Virginia Beach couple prided themselves on being an active part of the community. They earned the first River Star award from the Elizabeth River Project for helping to launch a pollution prevention initiative. They not only held parties for customers every year, they let customers hold their own parties on the site, from weddings to 50th birthday parties.

With only three weeks to go, the yard is almost empty; only a couple of boats are left. The company's eight employees are looking for work.

The two boat yard dogs, Cutty and Maggie, will have to chase seagulls elsewhere. And the Powells aren't sure what they're going to do next. But they said they'll keep some equipment, just in case they find that slip of land where they can restore boats again.

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