Regal Marina family shares its side of the story

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The Regal family—Jesse, Josh, Sue and Dennis Jr.—feel they have been personally wronged by the city of Prairie du Chien over how they’ve run the marina for over 33 years. Arbitration is presently underway between both parties. (Photos by Correne Martin)

The Regal family is pictured with some of their friends, aka their extended marina customer family. (Front row, from left) Jesse Regal, Josh Regal, Ed Erdos III; (back row) Chuck Shover, Doc and Juanitta Kilby, Everett Rowland, Patricia and Cletus Cooley, Sue and Dennis Regal Jr.

By Correne Martin

It’s business as usual this boating season at Regal Marina. At least, it’s mostly as usual, considering electricity to the docks was disconnected by the city of Prairie du Chien, upon state recommendation, one year ago in May and has not been restored. (Boaters can use on board generators and the buildings still have power for service needs.)

It’s well-known in Prairie du Chien area communities that the Regal family and the city government have been at odds for years. Only in the last few years have their disagreements become news. In January, the contention turned into a legal battle.

The generations of Regals who have stake in the marina business have remained quiet about their side of the story—until now. The family requested an opportunity to tell their story and, alongside a half-dozen loyal boaters, April 5, they sat down to do so.

Feeling wronged
The bottom line is the Regals feel they are being wronged. They have struggled to preserve the name and legacy of their marina for about seven years. They say they have been “picked on” by the city council and administration. They believe they have been challenged with unreasonable requests and, in return, not received a genuine willingness to compromise from the city.

Regal Marine Group has operated its business on city-owned land for over 33 years. Dennis Sr. and the late Betty Regal purchased the operation from Gerald and Jane Smith in 1983. The buildings, four docks, a gas dock, a boat launch lift and other associated assets on the property were constructed and are owned by the small family business.  

“We love our customers and we have a long established reputation with all of them,” the family stated on the business’ Facebook page April 4.

Every summer, about 100 local and visiting boat owners utilize the marina, in addition to many transient boaters who stay overnight frequently. Each of those customers brings several invitees with them to enjoy the atmosphere as well.

“Many are repeat customers who even stayed with us last year when we had no power,” said Sue Regal, who currently runs the business alongside her husband Dennis Jr. and sons Jesse and Josh.

“We have a lot of boaters who say they come here because they feel at home and can relax,” Josh pointed out.

“We’ve been coming here for five years. We chose Regal Marina because I had been to Prairie du Chien my whole life and liked it here,” voiced Everett Rowland, of Clermont, Iowa. “We wanted our boat on St. Feriole Island. We wanted a good mechanic—they have three of them—a covered dock and customer-friendly service, and these people have exceeded that. We’re at home here; we’re on a first-name basis. But I’m mystified why the city and the Regals cannot be working together for mutual benefit.”

Regal Marina operates as hospitably as they come, according to their customers. Google reviews of every marina within a 60-mile radius of Prairie du Chien give it 4.9 out of 5 stars—the highest of any of them. Georgene Richardson said it’s “the best place to be around great people.”

On the marina’s Facebook page, Warren Means shared, “When anyone on the river has a problem, they always call Regals to come and help. Only marina that has people and equipment to handle anything from break downs to sinking boats. They will treat a stranger just like a regular at the marina, as to costs for repairs. Just good honest people.”

Serena Lindner reviewed, “They keep their docks clean and in great shape. The Regal family is very friendly and very knowledgeable.”

“The Regals are at the marina seven days a week,” Jeff Stone added.

Presently, Regal Marine Group and the city have entered into arbitration.

The disagreements between both parties began in 2010. The now-disbanded city harbor commission then learned from a memo by then-City Administrator Aaron Kramer that two separate parties were interested in operating the marina facilities and had approached him expressing so. The memo questioned Regal Marina’s operations and charged it to be in a possible “state of violation” of a 1963 lease that called for a “high grade marina” with rates in line with charges of other high grade marinas. No action was taken by the commission as, at that time, there was no quorum to hold the meeting.

In that same memo, the administrator stated, “The current lease extension, which was drafted in 2007, was not signed by all parties involved. It appear[ed] the document was last seen in the office of the city administrator [and not signed]. Therefore, no lease is currently, legally in effect.”

Also, according to Ed Erdos, a family friend and retired Veterans Administration field examiner, in the city’s 2009 waterfront plan, whenever the marina is referenced, its plans are referred to as an “improved marina” or “rehabilitated marina.”

“I think that delineates the city’s position toward the marina and the demeaning way in which they are mentioned, he said.

Again, in 2015, as the Courier Press first reported, the city council’s public works committee echoed the concerns about the condition and aesthetics of the marina. After administration met with the Regal family, the council approved a one-year lease, though the Regals had requested a 20-year lease. Dennis Regal Sr. told the council a one-year lease made it impractical for the business to commit funds and obtain loans for improvements.

In January 2016, according to the Courier Press, Wisconsin commercial and electrical building inspectors conducted an informal inspection of the marina, with permission from the owners. A number of building and electrical deficiencies were uncovered at that time and the city cited safety concerns. However, Erdos believes “The city blew the whistle and called the state in (for the inspection).” No problems had come up until that time, he said.

Jesse said, for more than 33 years, the owners had the facilities inspected and those inspectors never had an issue. Yet, the family met with the council to discuss the perceived problems and even requested a punch list of these perceived problems. The Regals said they never received one. Once again, they requested consideration of a longer-term lease. The Regals had also applied for a loan through a state business initiative, which wanted more than a one-year lease before granting any funds.

“Nobody in their right mind would spend $75,000 (for electrical upgrades) and only have a one-year lease,” Rowland quipped.

In May 2016, stating violations of state electrical code, the city cut power to the docks. Of course, some of the marina’s dedicated customers addressed the council at its next regular meeting. Prior to that meeting, Rowland said he and his wife personally visited with the city administrator, who told them the city had a buyer for the marina.

“He advised us to sue the Regals,” Rowland stated. “I responded with, ‘We should be suing [the city].’ I wonder why the city was dealing with someone else. They never sent that buyer down to the Regals.”

In spite of the situation, as a Courier Press article reported, boaters still signed contracts and utilized the facilities last season.

“But, we were basically handicapped because we didn’t have electricity on the docks. We installed solar panels to light the walkways,” Jesse said. “That’s an upgrade no one ever credited either.” According to Dennis Jr., the solar panels cost $3,000.

Josh noted further disappointment that the city would not allow use of generators so services such as washing and waxing boats and performing maintenance could continue. Even though, “When the city has all its events on the island, they allow use of generators and cords to be run,” he said.

Despite the Regals operating on a limited basis in 2016—missing out on around $60,000 in gas sales revenue alone, according to Sue—they maintained nearly all of their slip renters. She said they lost only three last year.
In June 2016, the city extended a new lease with a line of credit to the Regals, calling for a five-year term.

But the Regals’ support team wasn’t buying it.

“[The city’s] intent was never to help the Regals. It was all to look good in public,” Rowland said.

Erdos said the Regals had already applied for a loan to make upgrades as the city asked. But they couldn’t get the loan because the business was still under a one-year lease, and they didn’t want to sign the city’s new five-year lease because they were uncertain about what the city might “demand” next.

“Would any reasonable person do everything the city was asking, knowing, at any time, the plug could be pulled?” Erdos inquired. “The city is just not operating on a good faith basis.”

Nevertheless, the five-year version of the lease included a section that said, upon termination of the lease, the Regals should remove all their belongings, including the buildings, within 60 days, or the city would become the owner of the facilities and could remove, dispose, sell or rent them as the city desired.

“In the end, the Regals could have to surrender their property to the city, at no cost to the city, and it was up to the city whether or not they complied,” Rowland interpreted.

Another section of the proposed five-year lease the Regals found ill-suited was that they would have no authority to ask the city for payment of any labor, material, construction, maintenance or other expenses moving forward.

“If there was ever a conflict of interest, we wouldn’t have the right to request any help from the city,” Josh chided.

Arbitration starts
Since the Regals did not sign the proposed lease or respond to the city’s correspondence, and because code upgrades had not been made, the council voted, in November 2016, to serve notice on Regal Marine Group for default and termination of the one-year lease in effect.

The Regals conceded that both parties had come to an impasse. Accordingly, in December 2016, legal counsel for Regal Marine Group ordered the termination issues be resolved by arbitration. In January 2017, after a closed session council meeting, the city decided to engage in the legal dispute as well.

Dennis Jr. said any hopes for a loan to help make improvements are now most certainly on hold.

“We’re struggling to be good citizens of Prairie du Chien,” he continued. “But the city has been trying to do everything it can to shut us down. We can’t even run an extension cord.”

“The city has been extremely nit-picky,” Erdos added.

Distressed livelihood
Josh accounted for how much of a struggle this whole ordeal has been for the Regal family and its friends—the boating customers.

“This is a four-generation, family business,” he said, noting that his children and Jesse’s have also gotten involved as they’ve grown. “I think we’ve done fairly well over the years.”

“Even though we’ve been flooded over 22 times,” Sue chimed in.

Josh continued, “We and our customers have spent a lot of money in this area, but they’re taking away everything we know how to do, everything we’re good at doing. And it’s ruining our name and everything we’ve ever stood for.”

“We’re also racking up expenses in the process,” Jesse stated, pointing out that doing so makes it even more difficult to afford much aside from utilities, wages for five employees and day-to-day expenses.

“We’d like to keep our prices down to accommodate an honest man who earns an honest wage,” Dennis Sr. added.

Now what?
As the boating season quickly approaches, Regal Marine Group and the city have a few weeks to respond to each other’s court “briefs.” Then, a telephone conference is scheduled for May 3.

In the meantime, around 20 houseboats and cruisers sit in the Regal Marina parking lot—awaiting another season and supporting their preferred business—regardless of the issues. The Regals want to continue providing their services for the community and area tourists, as they said in their Facebook statement, while maintaining “the hometown character and relationship [they’ve] established throughout the years.”

“I hope this works out and the Regals can continue,” Erdos said. “The city has the right to ask the Regals to protect the common good. Coming down and saying ‘I think you should upgrade the electrical but we’d like to work with you’ is one thing, but they shouldn’t be doing it the way they have.”

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