THE VERY FIRST STORY THAT WALKED IN OUR FRONT DOOR AFTER OUR MOVE TO BROAD STREET IN 2006.
A GREAT READ AND STILL RELEVANT, GIVEN WHAT’S GOING ON AT THE MARINA THESE DAYS!
June 15, 2006–Call it the snow cone war.
On one side is Garcha Singh, a retiree from Kent State University who spends his days on a boat at Augusta’s Riverfront Marina, except for those hot afternoons when he sells snow cones at Children’s Park.
On the other side is Mike Stacy of Mobile Marine, which last year took over management of the Riverwalk Marina and gift shop — a venture that once drained Augusta’s taxpayers of $130,000 a year. As Stacy tries to keep Mobile Marine solvent, he’s fighting to kill the snow cone competition.
From that pairing are now flying accusations of unfair business competition, racial discrimination and public displays of sexuality.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Garcha Singh, Ohio retiree
Garcha Singh arrived in Augusta from Kent, Ohio, about four years ago and rented a slip at the Riverwalk Marina. It’s one of the hidden jewels of the city, a community of about 50 boats on the Georgia side of the cool Savannah River beneath the Jefferson Davis Bridge on Fifth Street.
People came to know him as Dr. Singh. Although Singh has not earned a doctorate, he was once a prominent sports figure in field hockey and tennis in Tanzania. After earning a degree at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education in Israel, Singh worked as an instructor at the Teacher’s Training College in Tanzania.
He moved to the United States in 1969 under the auspices of the Agency for International Development. Officials from Kent State say he worked there until 2001, serving as Coordinator of International Student Affairs for many of those years.
When Singh arrived in Augusta, he established a primary address at a postal box in Clearwater, S.C. But he spent most of his days living at slip 23 at Riverwalk Marina, where he berthed his 40-foot homebuilt houseboat.
At the time, the marina was being run by the City of Augusta. Rent was cheap at only $125 per month. A berth in Savannah could cost three or four times as much. However, the Augusta rental contract prohibited liveaboards — defined as anyone living there more than four consecutive days or more than 10 days a month — and prohibited commercial activity.
Records show that by 2003, the marina was already having disputes with Singh. In November of 2003, he was asked to provide a verifiable address other than the marina. He was notified that, for safety reasons, he could have nothing on his dock but a storage box. He was told that he wasn’t allowed to park his boat trailer in customer parking.
In addition, he was twice notified of failure to clean up the dock after his dog. He was notified that he had left obstructions in the dock. He was warned about unauthorized moorage of a second boat.
One complaint against Singh, a note from the marina manager, said “It has been reported that with your not having shades or blinds on your boat that people other than the boat owner have seen your sexual activities. Please be a little more discreet.”
Marina economic woes
The dispute between Singh and the marina escalated after Stacy took over the management of the facility.
Augusta had been losing a bundle on the marina for years. For its first 12 years, the Augusta Port Authority ran the marina. According to documents provided by Stacy and Mobile Marine, the marina required a city subsidy of more than $130,000 per year to keep it afloat.
In 2004, the port authority decided to lease the marina to a private operator. Mobile Marine won the bid. The company had incorporated in 2001 with Mike Stacy as its president, secretary, treasurer and board of one. Its agent was attorney Jack E. Boone, Jr., who listed the registered office of the corporation as his boat, slip 12 at the marina. Mobile Marine agreed to pay the City of Augusta $1,500 per month for the privilege of operating the marina, a small store and the gasoline pump. It took over Jan. 1, 2005.
As became apparent during a recent meeting of the port authority, the relationship between the city and Stacy has become strained. Boone, identifying himself now as stockholder and attorney for Mobile Marine, appeared with Stacy before the board.
“Quite frankly, he’s having a very hard time operating the facility,” Boone said.
Boone told the port authority that Mobile Marine was being charged for electricity, but that meters were not in place, even though the city had promised they would be. That meant the marina could not fairly pass the costs along to users. He complained that some work to install meters was to be performed by the city but had never been completed.
Berthing contracts, which were written by the city and require port authority approval to be changed, say that water is free. But the marina is being charged for water, Boone said. As that dispute escalated last year, the city turned off the water to the marina. When the marina turned the water back on, it got a bill for $1,000 in water for just one month. With berth rental prices remaining quiet low, it’s difficult for the marina to recover its costs of providing water, Stacy said.
In addition, Stacy said the city had printed a brochure about parks, lakes and other points of interest, but failed to mention the marina. He felt that showed lack of support from the city.
Trent Mercer, chairman of the port authority, pointed out that Mobile Marine had received a number of benefits when it took over the marina. It was not charged for the gasoline that was on hand at the marina. And it was given six months free rent.
The dispute over the marina contract is ongoing. On one hand, Mobile Marine says it wants to extend the contract another five years, but, on the other, it says it’s in a precarious financial position.
“Quite frankly, you’re about to run the man out of business,” Boone told the port authority.
Against that backdrop, enter Singh and the snow cone business.
Snow cone vending
Singh became a constant thorn in the side of marina operators when he took a job helping long-time snow cone vendor Osborn Newman. Since the mid-‘80s, Newman has been licensed with the parks department of the City of Augusta with the privilege of selling snow cones in Children’s Park, which sits next to the marina.
Today, the park’s slides, swings and sand are a magnet for children. But when Newman started selling cups of shaved ice covered in sweet syrup, he made only $20 or $25 for a full day’s work. At that time, there was no Riverwalk. There was no marina. There was just a river and a hopeful vendor.
“I was there before the marina was built,” Newman said. In those early days, Newman said, he paid to have a power pole installed at the location and an underground line run to the park so that he could use an electric ice shaver to carve his snow cones.
When the city built the marina and gift shop, Newman said, it took down the power pole that he had installed. However, city officials told him he could continue to take power from the gift shop. That agreement held until Mike Stacy and Mobile Marine came along.
“I never had a problem with nobody till this Mike guy took over that place,” Newman said.
By then, Newman had built the snow cone business into an institution. The $2 snow cones supported Newman’s family well, he said, although he often had to work 12- hour days to make the business successful. Newman recalled how he learned that Mobile Marine was jealous.
“I was sitting in the park one day,” Newman said. “I had had a real good day.”
Stacy came up, Newman said, and remarked about how good the vendor’s snow cone sales had been. Newman said, “He said, ‘I want a piece of the action.’” Newman said Stacy asked for a payment of $50 for every day he operated there.
“I told him that if he was going to use our water and electricity, he was going to have to pay for it. He has misconstrued that,” Stacy said, saying that he didn’t ask for such a large amount.
Stacy provided documents to show that he went to the port authority in November. It agreed that because Stacy was paying for the electricity, Newman couldn’t be allowed to use it for free. Newman was expected to show up at that meeting but didn’t. Singh says Newman wasn’t informed of it.
Stacy has been quite open about his concern that the snow cone business was unauthorized competition with the marina’s gift shop. In one letter, he accused Newman’s snow cone business of overloading the electrical circuits and causing temporary power failures at the gift shop. He wouldn’t let that continue.
Stacy told the Metro Spirit, “He’s in direct competition with our store.” Stacy provided the Metro Spirit with a copy of a city memo from 1988 saying that vendors at Riverwalk must be licensed with the port authority, as opposed to the parks department. In addition, Stacy provided a copy of a city memo from 1998 saying that vendors will not be allowed in the marina areas.
After the confrontation between Stacy and Newman, relations between them deteriorated. “I unplugged him,” Stacy said.
Newman complained to the city, but it did no good, he said. He went back to a hand-cranked ice shaver, even though it was exceedingly difficult because of the arthritis in his hands.
By then, Newman and Singh had become acquainted. At age 58, Newman’s ailments were making it difficult for him to hand-crank snow cones every day.
“He wanted me to help him, assist him,” Singh said. “I say, ‘No problem.’ I have all the time in the world. I like people. I’m not really doing it for the sake of money.”
Singh backs up Newman’s claim that Mobile Marine wanted to be paid by the snow cone operator.
“They wanted a payoff,” Singh said. “I think he was asking for $50. He (Newman) said, ‘I never had to pay before.’”
When Singh began working for Newman, the situation grew even worse, the two men said. The very first day that Singh unloaded the snow cone cart and pushed it in front of the marina gift shop to the park, he had a confrontation with Stacy.
Singh said, “He comes out yelling out me, using obscene language. He says, ‘You’re not allowed. This is private property. You are trespassing. You’re not supposed to do any business at the marina.’”
Stacy called his attorney, Boone, to back him up on that assertion. But Singh persisted with the business. In subsequent days, Stacy took pictures of Singh unloading the equipment from his van in the marina parking lot and moving it past the marina gift shop to the park.
Both Singh and Newman say that on at least one occasion, police were called by Mobile Marine to try and prevent them from unloading the snow cone cart on marina property. And one time, Newman said, someone locked a gate to try and prevent Singh from leaving the park with this snow cone cart at the end of the day.
On April 1, Riverwalk Marina began proceedings to evict Singh from the marina. The top three complaints all had to do with Singh’s work at the snow cone stand. “No commercial activities,” the complaint read. “Boat owner shall not ‘conduct any commercial activities whatsoever at the marina.’” That refers to Singh’s contract for his berth.
That made Singh believe he was being singled out for special treatment. Other people had commercial activities at the marina, he said, including Boone, the attorney for Mobile Marine, who used his boat slip as his business address in filing as the agent of the company.
The second complaint said that port authority rules prohibited vendors in the marina areas. Yet Newman has been parking in the marina parking lot and pushing his cart to Children’s Park for years without complaint.
The third complaint was that Singh has breached the rental agreement by parking his van in the lot without a proper parking sticker and using the van to conduct commercial activities at the marina.
Stacy does not try to hide his focus on the snow cone business. He’s trying to make the marina a solvent business, something it has never been in the past. He told the Metro Spirit that he sees Singh use the electricity and water from the marina to freeze ice, store the snow cone cart in a van in the marina parking lot, and then go sell a product right next door to the marina.
“Singh is competing with the store,” Stacy said.
Throwing the book
Stacy and Mobile Marine threw the book at Singh in its effort to get him out of Riverwalk Marina. The complaint says that Singh is living aboard the boat in violation of the contract. Singh denies that. And Stacy admits that the liveaboard rule is not strictly enforced.
The marina also accuses Singh of not having proof of insurance for the board. Singh has provided a certificate of insurance, though Stacy disputes its validity.
That issue takes on greater significance because Singh also stands accused by Mobile Marine of two other violations: making an unsound addition to his houseboat and failing to maintain his boat in seaworthy condition.
Over the past three years, Singh has built a second story on his boat. This unusual structure sits atop the boat like a high-rise stateroom. In Stacy’s opinion, it’s a danger to all the boats around Singh.
“Your houseboat is deemed to be a potential hazard in the event of high winds,” Stacy wrote. “During high winds, your boat could roll over or, worse, wind could blow your add-on onto another vessel.”
Stacy also says Singh’s boat does not run, and that, in the event of an emergency, Singh would be unable to move it to another location.
Singh disputes the claims, saying his boat has already withstood winds greater than 60 mph. He also says that his boat would run if he simply charged the batteries. And he says there are several other boats at the marina that do not run, and that they are not being singled out as his boat is.
In the eviction, Stacy brought up all the old complaints against Singh from the days when the city operated the facility. And he added new ones. The eviction effort claims Singh was hostile to marina staff and threatened to report them to the press, saying, “You are all racists against me.” It also accuses Singh of telling a marina customer that he had loaded weapons on his boat and would not hesitate to use them.
And Stacy showed the Metro Spirit other complaints about Singh, including one from 2005 in which someone complained about seeing sexual activity on Singh’s boat. Singh disputes that as well. He says that in one case he’s accused of displaying sexual behavior publicly, yet he had just had a heart bypass that rendered such sexual activity impossible. In addition, he says Stacy misconstrued many of his statements.
Finally, Stacy accuses Singh of not paying his rent. Singh, in return, accuses the marina of overcharging him. And Singh showed copies of checks that he said proved he had paid his bills on time and in full.
But in a court ruling last week, the marina obtained a default judgment against Singh, ordering him to pay about $800 and giving Stacy permission to evict him. Singh says the suit was invalid because he wasn’t properly served notice. But, he said, the stage is now set for the next act: Singh’s racial discrimination claim.
“Why me?” Singh asked rhetorically. “I come to the conclusion there can be no other reason. I am an Indian from East Africa. I speak fluent Swahili. My values are very African-American. And I do have friends that sometime want to come speak Swahili with me. When I came here, I was dating an African-American professor from Ohio.”
Singh says he’s a victim of racial discrimination. He plans to appeal the eviction and ask for a jury trial.
He says he has audio recordings in which Stacy admits singling him out for this kind of treatment. “He told me, ‘Just for you,’” Singh says.
Stacy denies that and points out that he went to court to evict three other boat owners on the same day he filed against Singh.
Newman supports Singh’s claim that the he has been singled out because of the color of his skin. Newman also said that Mobile Marine workers had called Singh names to suggest there could also be discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Newman describes Singh as a “very honest guy, very truthful.”
In the end, the dispute may not come down so much to the color of someone’s skin as it does to the color of his snow cones and his money.
Newman said he believes the marina is trying to put him out of business. He sells snow cones for $2, but he sees the marina advertising snow cones for 25 cents each. And now he sees the marina trying to force his employee out of his home, making it more difficult for Singh to handle duties at the snow cone stand.
Newman thinks the root of the dispute is Stacy’s snow cone envy, a belief that the budget of the marina — a long-time loser — can be balanced with the cash that once went to a man grinding shaved ice and topping it with syrup.
“I don’t sell nothing that he sells,” Newman said. “But he’s so jealous of me in that park.”
Singh wants an independent committee convened to examine the dispute.
And few seem to consider that the people in the middle of this dispute are neither Singh nor Stacy, but the children, who for nearly 20 years have come to the riverfront to swing on the swings, slide on the slides and slurp down a cup of ice colored with dark blue raspberry or bright red cherry.