In a place like Florida where change comes in the waves of the thousands of people who move here, how things were a decade ago is little more than ancient history.
A decade ago, Ruskin was a boating community and the heart of that community was in three somewhat rundown marinas in an area collectively known as Bahia Beach. It was a peaceful yet thriving place for boaters, and non-boaters often walked the docks just taking in the vibe. It was a good place.
When a development corporation purchased the marinas from the families who owned them, things changed, as would be expected. The developers didn’t appear to have much interest in running marinas at the time, their focus was … well, that is not entirely clear as their efforts to develop the area ran smack dab into the enormous burst of the housing bubble.
For a long time, distant banks have owned the property and a certain stagnant peace again fell over the area. More and more, tourists came and enjoyed themselves with no knowledge of the status or history of the place. A new company has since purchased much of the property and today things are changing again. History, in fact, may be repeating itself in a good, albeit different, way. Ruskin could again become a boating community and what is now known as Little Harbor, along with nearby Shell Point Marina, could again become the pulse of it and of the surrounding communities.
Kevin Lefler has been around boats since he was a teenager, working and saving money to buy his first boat at the age of 16. He started a plumbing company and through hard work and by relentlessly putting his customers first, he built it into a success, providing a good life for him and his wife Peggy.
And then one day, he thought about death.
“One day I wondered what would happen if I die? My wife would own a plumbing company and what was she going to do with that? The value of it would drop,” Lefler said. “It was a reputable plumbing company so I was able to sell it and invest the money. The problem is that I didn’t die.”
When a group of investors bought much of the Little Harbor property, including the marina formerly known as Bahia Del Sol, now named the Village Marina, they began asking around for someone to help them figure out just what it was they had. Lefler’s name came up and shortly thereafter, he was asked to manage the marina.
Several months later, the investors bought the Little Harbor Marina, formerly known as the Bahia Beach Marina. At that point, they asked Lefler if he would consider taking both marinas on as his own business.
“I don’t work for them anymore,” he said. “It is my business running these marinas. I get all of the money but I pay all of the bills, and I make a lease payment. Anything that needs to be done, any improvements that need to be made, that is all through my business and my money, but I don’t have to wait around for approval.”
During the years of bank ownership, little investment was made in the marinas and, as a result, Lefler is now playing an expensive form of catch-up in making improvements.
“Luckily I don’t need a paycheck right now so I can put everything back into the property,” he said.
Kevin Lefler is the rare kind of person that you just instinctively feel you can trust. If he says he is going to do something, it will be done. If you need his help, he will be there.
“One of the things at my plumbing company was that ‘no’ is not in my vocabulary,” he said. “I can’t stand that word. If a boater wants something, it has to be very much out of reason for me to say no.”
He has invested thousands in rebuilding bait tanks that now actually work. There is a larger forklift carefully picking up boats for high and dry storage along with a rebuilt ramp that will keep the forklift from going into the water. There are new channel markers, making it easier to navigate the shallows and shoals. He has brought in the Freedom Boat Club to provide those who love the water with opportunities to enjoy it without the work and expense of boat ownership.
“It’s a good deal,” he said. “You join the club and pay a flat monthly fee and that entitles you to go to any Freedom Boat Club for unlimited use of the boats. You don’t have to worry about insurance, maintaining it; you don’t have to clean it. You can’t possibly own a boat for what the monthly fee is. The organization is very conscientious and they are doing well.”
The bottom line is that Lefler, himself a lifelong boater, is working hard and investing his time and money to make Ruskin and Little Harbor a center for boating again. He is working hard to win customers over, one at a time, if necessary. His focus is entirely on boaters and the marinas.
“I would like to see this become the marina of choice not just for those living here but for transients as well,” he continued. “We are making changes here that are going to make it better for the boaters. I would like to see a clubhouse built, somewhere that the boaters can get together and maybe have a barbecue. I love transients and we are starting to see more of them and some boating clubs coming here.
“We’re happy to be here. We want everyone to know that we want them to be here. I don’t care if you are running a marina, a hotdog stand or a construction company, at the end of the day, the customer has to feel like they got something of value. And that’s what I work to do, give my customers value so they keep coming back.”
People are coming back and in some ways history is repeating itself.
“We want the people at this resort to have fun, that is the main thing,” he said. “We want them to enjoy the pool, we want them to enjoy the restaurants, we want them to not have to go down the street if they want to pick up a six-pack of Coke or a carton of milk. We want to provide everything they need so they can stay here and just enjoy themselves.”
With the latter concept in mind, Lefler recently opened the Village Market near the tennis courts at the resort. The store has everything from ice-cold beer, frozen pizzas, snacks and ice cream to hats and t-shirts, along with other sundries and souvenirs. The SouthShore Chamber of Commerce has scheduled a ribbon cutting to celebrate the new store. The Village Market is open seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“This property is unlike anything else in Hillsborough County,” he said. “No one else has what we have on this side of the bay. We have the hotel, the townhomes, we have floating docks and fixed docks, we have the high and dry. Now that the banks are out of the picture, things are going to go well here. We are always looking for ways to make the resort better. We want all of this to be a good resort; for the boaters, for the guests and for the people who live here.”
Lefler is also offering boat washing services, fishing pole rentals and golf cart rentals, all for nominal fees that barely cover expenses. They are not intended to be moneymakers, they are services offered to make things better for his customers.
“There are a lot of folks in South County that may have heard about Bahia Beach a long time ago but they haven’t been down to see what we’ve done,” Lefler said. “We’d like all of the people in South County to come visit our marinas, our restaurants, the beach, just come to see what we’ve got.”
A marina is by default a place where people are supposed to enjoy themselves and their love of the water that the Tampa Bay area is blessed with. Lefler knows that his 10 part- and full-time employees cannot be an exception to that.
“I want my employees to have a good time. I want them smiling and joking,” he said.
Still, today Lefler is a busy guy for someone who supposedly retired a few years ago. So is his wife Peggy, who can often be found managing the Village Market.
“Do I work myself to death? Absolutely not,” he said. “Am I here seven days a week? Yes, but they are my hours. I have the flexibility to go out to meet the boaters. I love doing that. I can walk around finding things that need to be done. To me, it’s not a job, it’s fun. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Lefler works to promote the success of the larger resort, but his business is focused solely in making his marinas the best they can be. He is not an absentee owner, he is a hands-on, decision-making manager with an intense focus on making his customers, the boaters who visit or stay at his marinas, as happy as possible.
“If somebody wants something, within reason, the answer will be yes,” he said with all sincerity. And with that, he hopped into a golf cart, taking off to talk to some boaters, or perhaps, to find something that needs to be fixed. From the perspective of a longtime boater, it seemed like old times.
For information about The Marinas at Little Harbor, call 813-645-2288 or visit their website at www.thelittleharbormarina.com.